Avoiding Highway Traffic On Amtrak's Auto-Train by Jack Turner
TRAFFIC ON AMTRAK'S
Photos by Jack M. Turner
The summer of 2006 was unusual at my household as it
was the first time our high school-aged son John had been away from
home for an extended period without my wife or me. Much of his
summer was spent interning in Miami with the National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) which was one of the awards John won
at last year's International Science and Engineering Fair. (My
Train Web article about rail travel to Indianapolis in May 2006
detailed that event.)
Upon completion of his internship in Miami, John was
sent to Silver Spring, MD for a one week intern seminar to present his
research along with other NOAA interns from around the nation.
His northward journey provided his first solo overnight train trip
which ended up being unforgettable as his Silver Star lost copious
amounts of time including an overnight grade crossing accident which
delayed the train for over two hours on its way to its 9:40pm arrival
into Washington. A few days later I would head north aboard
Amtrak's AutoTrain to pick up John, all the while hoping that better
timekeeping would await me.
The four hour drive to Sanford, FL was uneventful
and I checked in at 1:35pm on a steamy August 3, 2006. AutoTrain
passengers drive their vehicles to a check-in point outside the Sanford
station, remove hand luggage needed for the night aboard the train,
then turn their vehicle over to Amtrak employees who drive it aboard
the auto carrier train cars. The auto carriers are located at the
rear of the train and the automobiles actually ride backwards so they
can be driven right off the train at Lorton, VA. On this trip,
AutoTrain consisted of 2 P42 locomotives pulling 16 bilevel Superliner
passenger cars and 16 auto carrier cars. The train stretched 3/4
mile in length and transported 291 passengers and 141 vehicles.
Inside the station waiting room I checked-in at the
ticket office and selected my desired dining time for dinner from three
choices: 5pm, 7pm, and 9pm. The northbound Silver Meteor sailed
past a couple hundred yards away on the mainline at 1:50pm and at 2:30
the first boarding announcement was made for AutoTrain. I settled
into roomette 3 in sleeper 32105 Oregon which had wonderfully cool air
conditioning. This car was somewhat out of place on AutoTrain as
previously sleepers used on this train bore either the names of states
along this train's route or the home states of its northern
clientele. A couple of cars normally assigned to the Sunset
Limited, including the Oregon, were stranded in Sanford when
Hurricane Katrina shut down that train's route along the Gulf Coast and
had been incorporated into the AutoTrain pool.
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Automobiles are loaded onto
Auto Train at Sanford, FL
boarding takes place on both sides of the platform.
Deluxe sleeper "Palm Bay"
Sleeper passengers were summoned to the first class
lounge car at 3:00pm for wine and cheese. A friendly attendant
welcomed me into the car which was set with crisp tablecloths and
inviting baskets of fresh fruit, crackers, and assorted cheeses.
Outside the sightseer lounge's oversized windows, the southbound Silver
Star was visible in the distance. Meanwhile, Amtrak workers were
loading the last vehicles in the auto carrier cars across the driveway
from the passenger platform. At 3:30pm a cut of five
passenger cars that had loaded across the platform from us was pulled
backwards by a switch engine and coupled to the rear of the main body
of passenger cars. The auto carriers were then efficiently
attached to the rear of the train and soon we were on our way a few
minutes early at 3:50pm.
Auto Train's first class diner
attendant at "Welcome Aboard" reception in the Sightseer Lounge car.
Framed Amtrak poster on the car bulkhead.
Framed Amtrak poster on the car bulkhead.
stretches around a curve at its Sanford Terminal.
After entering the CSX mainline, we crossed the Lake
Monroe drawbridge at 3:57 then assumed track speed for the jaunt
through Orange City, DeLand, and DeLeon Springs. My dinner
seating came at 5:00pm and I found myself eating in an almost private
dining car as most of my fellow passengers had opted for later
seatings. The meal was Amtrak dining at its best as I feasted on
New York strip steak, baked potato, green beans, salad, and key lime
pie accompanied by iced tea. The view from the window was
impressive as the 32 car AutoTrain traversed many curves through the
woodlands of north Florida.
A 50 minute delay at West Toccoi for trackwork provided
the perfect opportunity for a power nap back in my well cooled roomette
before we passed through the scenic stretch from Green Cove Springs and
Doctor's Inlet to Orange Park. Twilight provided a nice view of
downtown as we crossed the Ortega River at 7:35 and rushed past the
Jacksonville Amtrak station at 7:58pm. Darkness soon set in and
the lights of small Georgia towns filled my window as we steadily made
our way northward. I watched our passage of the Savannah Amtrak
station followed by the Savannah River bridge 15 minutes later before
turning in for a good night's sleep.
CSX switches at Monrief Yard in Jacksonville
Sunset as seen from Auto Train
I awoke to find the train stopped in Rocky Mount a
couple minutes before 6:00am then intermittently watched our progress
through sleepy North Carolina towns as I drifted in and out of
sleep. Finally I dragged myself out of bed, enjoyed a wake up
shower, then made my way to the dining car for continental breakfast
which consisted of corn muffins, cereal, bagels, and a banana. As
I dined I watched the familiar sights between Petersburg and Richmond,
VA that I have so often viewed during many train trips stretching back
to my high school years in the 1969-72 period. Crossing bridges
high above the Appomattox and James Rivers has always been a treat
especially on morning northbound trips.
North of Richmond we passed down the middle of
Center Street in Ashland and passed Randolph-Macon College where I
spent the fall of my freshman year of college way back when. In
those days I caught many a glimpse of the original privately operated
AutoTrain whose 50 car trains dashed by in a streak of purple, red, and
white trim. The journey ended at 10:00am as we pulled to a stop
at the beautiful modern Lorton AutoTrain terminal. Within 45
minutes my vehicle was unloaded and I was on my way to a downtown
rendezvous with my son.
signs at the Lorton Terminal direct passengers to coaches and sleeping
cars (identified by line numbers)
The new Lorton Auto Train Terminal
the northbound Auto Train wait for their vehicles.
Workers unload automobiles at Lorton.
Workers unload automobiles at
We spent the night at the Marriott Fairview Park in
Falls Church, VA then headed to nearby Dulles Airport the next morning
to tour the impressive new Air and Space Museum Annex which houses a
wide variety of air and space craft. Included were the prototype
space shuttle Enterprise, an Air France Concorde supersonic jet, the
WWII bomber Enola Gay, and examples of almost every type of aircraft
imaginable. In the afternoon we drove south along traffic clogged
I-95 to Ashland where we hung out by the old depot and watched five
Amtrak trains and a couple of CSX freights pass during a 90 minute
period. The evening was spent at the convenient Marriott off West
Broad Street in Richmond's suburbs.
shuttle "Enterprise" at the Air and Space Museum Annex at Dulles
An Apollo spacecraft at the Air and Space Annex
Concorde supersonic jet at the Air and Space Museum Annex
Southbound CSX intermodal at Ashland, VA
The northbound "Carolinian" arrives in Ashland.
Richmond-bound regional train at Ashland.
Scenic Ashland is a great train watching spot.
Auto Train charges past Randolph-Macon College in Ashland.
storms through Ashland.
A couple of days later we visited another railroad
mecca, the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, NC. A
vintage Fairbanks-Morse H-12-44 engine pulled a short consist around
the grounds which are located on the site of Southern Railway's old
Spencer shops. A variety of equipment including purple and silver
ACL slant nose E3 # 501 which was built in 1939, green Southern
Crescent E8 6900, Southern Railway 10-6 sleeper Catawba River, a
railway post office, and other interesting pieces fill the on-site
roundhouse. An impressive equipment collection is housed outdoors
including former Illinois Central round end observation car Mardi Gras,
still dressed in its Norfolk Southern tuscan red excursion paint; a
former New Haven sleeper-lounge, a Norfolk Southern 11 bedroom sleeper
Royal Arch, and retired Amtrak F40
# 307. A giftshop and preserved equipment from other travel modes
complement the collection.
Transportation Museum offers a short train ride.
Former N &
W coaches from the NS steam excursion program.
#1860 shoves the consist to the Spencer Shops Station.
Haven sleeper lounge "Pine Tree State"
Southern Railway E-8 #6900
Atlantic Coast Line E-3 #501
Central observation car "Mardis Gras"
N.C. Transportation Museum's train
A couple of days later John and I visited one of our
favorite rail-oriented locations, Tweetsie Railroad between Boone and
Blowing Rock, NC. I first experienced Tweetsie back in the
mid-1960s and the magic seems to never wear off. Original East
Tennessee & Western North Carolina 4-6-0 steam locomotive number 12
or its 2-8-0 sister # 190, still pulls a set of open air cars around a
3 mile loop that passes across the tall Dead Horse Trestle, traverses
rich forests and a rocky cut, and negotiates a pretty good grade that
results in impressive stack talk from the steam engine. Admission
to this original theme park is still reasonable as it allows unlimited
train rides as well as unlimited rides on the park's fair-style rides
and ski lift, and admission to various musical and dance shows. A
special railfan weekend is held each September and other special events
dot the calendar. Ample lodging is available in nearby Boone and
Tweetsie Railroad #190 at Boone, NC
Tweetsie tops the grade.
#190 is serviced between runs
Forests envolope the Tweetsie line.
Preparing for another run
Crossing dead Horse Trestle
Crossing dead Horse Trestle
Blue Ridge Parkway vistas between
Boone and Asheville.
The final leg of our trip involved driving back to
North Florida with the highlight coming in the form of a couple of
short freight trains spotted while passing through southern
Georgia. Sadly, once we left the Atlanta area we were far from
the nearest Amtrak station and forced to dream about the next time we
would step aboard a passenger train.