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AutoTrain2011



CHRISTMAS ON AUTO TRAIN: THE EASY ROUTE TO VIRGINIA

By Jack M. Turner

Photos by John C. Turner


    Christmas Day 2011 found my family making a bee-line for Sanford, Florida where our latest ride on Amtrak's Auto Train would commence.  As the Interstate highway miles rolled past, my mind wandered back almost 40 years to the start of Auto-Train service. 
   
    Under the private ownership of the Auto-Train Corporation, this unique train initiated service in December 1971 carrying passengers and their automobiles between Lorton, Virginia and Sanford, FL.  In Fall 1972 I saw the Auto-Train pass every day during my one semester at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA, usually during a morning physical education class.  In those days the engines, dining cars and dome cars wore in a distinctive white, red, and purple paint scheme while most of sleeping cars still were decked out in their original Union Pacific armour yellow or Santa Fe stainless silver.  On one December evening the southbound Auto-Train made a special stop in Ashland so its smartly uniformed hostesses could deliver a gift wrapped television set to local resident "Shirts" Blanton whose home overlooked the railroad.  Mr. Blanton was wheelchair bound after being shot while breaking up a bank robbery 18 years earlier.  Through the years Mr. Blanton had waved to countless passing freight trains and passengers aboard streamliners from his front porch.  On more than one occasion, he alerted train crews of mechanical issues that, undetected, would have derailed their trains.  A  week after the special Auto-Train stop, a cover story in Parade Magazine captured images of the event and told the story of Shirts Blanton.

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The northbound Auto-Train rolls past Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, VA in September 1973 (Photo by the author)

    Summer 1975 provided my one opportunity to ride the private Auto-Train during a southbound trip with my parents.  It was impressive watching towns in Virginia and North Carolina pass from the full dome lounge car where an Auto-Train employee played Peter, Paul and Mary's "Leaving On A Jet Plane" on a piano while using poetic license to change the words to "Leaving On Auto-Train".  Our drawing room in former Santa Fe sleeper "Regal Gate" was spacious and provided a nice night's sleep once I managed to pull myself away from the dome car and by morning we were back in the Sunshine State instead of waking up in some Holiday Inn in South Carolina.


The privately run Auto-Train employed attractive young people in bright 1970s era uniforms. The ground crew typically wore red and yellow outfits. (Photo by the author)

On board hostess Hallie Yates models one of the purple colored uniforms worn by service personnel on the Auto-Train in this July 1975 scene.  Note the numerous dome cars carried in the Auto-Train.  Full domes were purchased from the Santa Fe while vista dome cars came from both Union Pacific and Western Pacific.  (Photo by the author)

    The private Auto-Train was popular but eventually went bankrupt due to an unsuccessful route that was added between Louisville, KY and Sanford over a slow route plus two costly derailments of the Lorton-Sanford train.  Within two years Amtrak stepped in and took over the service using its own passenger equipment and some of the bankrupt company's auto carriers.  The original Lorton and Sanford terminals were acquired as they provided convenient access to I-95 in Lorton and I-4 in Sanford.  At first the Amtrak Auto Train (note the dropped hyphen in Amtrak parlance) used single level equipment before switching to bi-level Superliner cars in the mid-1990s.

    My own family had a chance to experience Amtrak's Auto Train in a September 1998 roundtrip as part of a driving trip to New England combined with travels on VIA Rail Canada trains to Nova Scotia and remote northern Quebec.  I also made a northbound solo trip in August 2006 documented in a TrainWeb story titled "Avoiding Highway Traffic On Amtrak's Auto Train".  Each of these trips was executed flawlessly by Amtrak and the time savings over a highway trip was appreciated each time.

    We pulled up to the check-in lane at the Sanford terminal shortly after 1:00pm and were directed to drive forward a few yards where we would unload our overnight bags.  An Amtrak employee put a magnetic sign bearing the number "21" to the side of our minivan while another employee videotaped the van's exterior in case of any damage claims.  Check-in at the ticket counter took just a moment and included a chance to select the early dinner sitting.  The Auto Train terminal in Sanford is a new facility opened in 2010 with ample comfortable seating and lots of glass windows.  Business would be fairly light since it was Christmas yet the train still would be about half full.




Vehicles are checked in at a booth near the entrance to the Sanford terminal

Our ticket envelope contains useful information about Amtrak's Auto Train

Our minivan is videotaped while we unload overnight luggage at the front door to the terminal.  Most passenger luggage is left in their vehicles for the overnight journey.

The ticket windows are in the background in this view of the waiting room in Sanford


The opposite view of the waiting room in the Sanford Auto Train terminal


    Boarding began at 2:30 as advertised and we found our sleeper (car 32503 "A. Philip Randolph") waiting right outside the terminal's sliding door.  Eleven of Auto Train's 16 Superliner cars received passengers on the terminal's main track while the last five passenger cars boarded on an adjacent stub track  Upstairs we settled into bedrooms J and K which formed a spacious bedroom suite with the sliding partition opened.  Our sleeper was one of six deluxe Superliner II sleepers constructed for Amtrak's Auto Train and the 32503 originally was assigned the name "Palm Coast" before being renamed for a pioneering 1920s Pullman car porter.  The deluxe sleepers differ from the majority of Amtrak's Superliner fleet in that they contain ten deluxe bedrooms on the upper level instead of the usual five deluxe bedrooms and ten roomettes.  The deluxe bedrooms in our car were lettered A-E and J-N while the lower level's arrangement was identical to all other Superliner sleepers.


Deluxe sleeper "A. Philip Randolph", our car on this trip

The passenger section of Auto Train is too long for the platform at Sanford which necessitates boarding the last few cars from the stub track at right

    A "welcome aboard" wine and cheese reception soon began in the lounge car one car behind our sleeper and before long many first class passengers congregated in the converted dining car.  Oddly, complimentary soft drinks were not offered but a quick trip to the station gift shop produced a more reasonably priced bottle of Diet Coke that would satisfy the three of us.  Across the driveway several auto carrier cars were in the process of being loaded with vehicles on four tracks. 


"Welcome aboard" snacks await in lounge car 33104, a converted dining car

An automobile is loaded on the top level of an auto carrier

An Amtrak minivan advertises Auto Train service

P40s # 831 and 835 back down to couple onto the Auto Train


    Vehicle loading was completed shortly after 3:00pm and soon a switch engine went about the task of assembling the train.  With the P40 locomotives, 16 passenger cars and 15 auto carriers, our Auto Train totaled over 4000 feet in length.  There were 207 passengers aboard and a total of 85 vehicles, a fairly light crowd due to this being Christmas Day.

    With the train all buttoned up, departure came at 3:49pm, 11 minutes early.  Early departures are commonplace for Auto Train since the vehicle check-in deadline is 3:00pm for regular sized cars and 2:00pm for oversized vehicles.  P40 # 831 led the way as train # 52 eased onto the CSX main line and soon made its way across the St. Johns River where it flows into Lake Monroe.  Several pleasure boats were visible in the river and the lake as a number of Floridians elected to enjoy the holiday on the water.



A pleasure boat seen as # 52 crosses the St. Johns River near Sanford

    Unlike Amtrak's other Florida trains, the Silver Meteor and Silver Star, the Auto Train runs past en route stations without stopping which often leads engineers on passing trains to joke about the Auto Train being special.  Right on time the dining car crew announced the first sitting for dinner at 5:00 and we found the servers to be pleasant and efficient.  Our salads were served as we breezed past the Amtrak station in Palatka, and our entrees and desserts were delivered promptly.  The leisurely meal stretched all the way to Orange Park, just south of Jacksonville as the early winter darkness descended.  We soon retired to our bedroom suite to view the passage of Jacksonville's multiple rail junctions and its Amtrak station which was between the arrival of the northbound "Silver Meteor" and "Silver Star".

    My scanner helped pinpoint our location as we sailed through the south Georgia hamlets of Folkston, Nahunta, and Hortense.  No help was needed in identifying Jesup since that town is a regular stop for the Florida to New York trains.  Shortly after we passed the Savannah station, our car attendant "Faith" stopped by as arranged at 9:00pm to turn down our beds for the night.  About 20 minutes later train # 52 made a stop near Hardeeville, South Carolina to cool its heels for about an hour while scheduled CSX computer upgrades were made.  These computers are part of the dispatching and train control system used to safely keep trains moving and it was evident that this was scheduled for Christmas night when freight traffic on the busy CSX main line was almost nonexistent.  The stop was not a surprise as just minutes earlier I had called "Julie", Amtrak's automated train status agent, to check on the southbound "Palmetto" which we should have passed shortly.  I was directed to a live agent who read me an advisory stating that train # 89 as well as our train would be held between Savannah and Charleston for the computer upgrade.  As soon as the train stopped at Hardeeville, the chief of on board service advised passengers over the public address system while assuring everyone that we should arrive at Lorton on-time or early the next morning.

    Our northward journey resumed at 10:35pm after a 73 minute pause and soon we all fell asleep.  Our upper level, center of the car bedrooms rode markedly smoother than the Viewliner bedrooms we often ride between Florida and the Northeast and the only time I woke up was near the end of our servicing/crew change stop in Florence at 1:35am.  Before I drifted back to dreamland, I noted the passage of the southbound Auto Train which also had lost time due to the computer upgrade.

    North Carolina passed while we slept and a glance out the window at 6:30am revealed a familiar view of houses through woods along a slight embankment.  Sure enough, five minutes later the Auto Train danced across the stately James River bridge on Richmond, Virginia's west end.  As dawn's first rays peeked through, train # 52 glided down the middle of Center Street in Ashland, past the old house where Shirts Blanton once lived, and along the edge of the Randolph-Macon College campus.  My mind was taken back to Fall 1972 when I regularly watched the Auto-Train roll through town and I pondered how different the schedule was since I definitely did not have a P.E. class at 7:00am.

    Continental breakfast, consisting of bagels, corn muffins, cereal, and a banana, awaited in the dining car as we traveled between Fredericksburg and Quantico.  Fredericksburg was a site of significant battles during both the American Revolution and the Civil War while Quantico today houses a major United States Marine Corps base.  The southbound overnight train from Boston to Newport News passed 15 minutes north of Quantico on its Monday morning run to Williamsburg and the Newport News/Hampton Roads area.

    After passing through Woodbridge and the Occoquan River bridge, the Auto Train eased into its Lorton terminal at 8:30am, exactly one hour ahead of schedule.  Early arrivals actually had concerned me somewhat as in the days leading up to our trip, # 52 frequently arrived as much as two hours early.  Crew members assured us that, in those instances the train does not discharge passengers until at least 8:15 since station ground crews do not report on duty until about 8:00am.  This certainly made for a better night's sleep as it prevented the necessity of rising too early.


Crossing the Occoquan River near Woodbridge, VA

    The Lorton terminal is similar in appearance to its Sanford sibling though it is ten years older.  Comfortable seating made for a relaxing place to wait for our minivan to be unloaded.  This process takes awhile as the auto carriers have to be detached from the rear of the train then shuttled by a switch engine in cuts of four or five cars at a time to the stub end tracks where they are unloaded.  Vehicles are driven right to the station's front door by Amtrak employees and this is where the magnetic sign that was affixed to the side of the vehicle comes into play.  As each vehicle approaches the front of the station, its number is read over the public address system.  Indeed the order in which vehicles are loaded onto the train does not affect the order in which they are delivered at the end of the trip as # 21 was finally called at 9:30 while only a couple dozen passengers had yet to hear their numbers called.  Yet, to think that one can board a train in mid-afternoon in Florida, eat and sleep the night away, and retrieve their car just after breakfast the next morning 855 miles from where they last saw it, is pretty amazing.  Without a doubt, Auto Train remains a shining example of rail travel at its best.


The first cut of auto carriers are switched to the unloading ramps

P32 # 515 handles switching duties at Lorton



Our minivan (behind the orange cone) is driven off the lower level of an auto carrier



Touring the Delmarva Peninsula

    After a visit with my college friend Carol for coffee in Springfield, VA, we made our way toward the Delmarva (Delaware-Maryland-Virginia) Peninsula.  An en route stop at Annapolis provided a brief driving tour of Maryland's capital city which combines a colonial and nautical atmosphere with its setting along the Chesapeake Bay.  Also home to the United States Naval Academy, Annapolis is a bustling small city and is worth inclusion on anyone's travel itinerary.


The Maryland capitol building in Annapolis

    The faint of heart might want to leave the driving to someone else as they cross the towering 4.3 mile Chesapeake Bay Bridge just east of Annapolis.  The original span opened in 1952 and at the time was the world's third longest bridge.  A second span was added in 1973 and today handles westbound traffic for the US 50/US 301 route.  The decks of both bridges reach 186 feet above the bay at their highest point.  Upon exiting the Bay Bridge, we entered the Eastern Shore (as the Delmarva Peninsula is called), a delightful region that seems a world away from the busy northeast corridor cities that are actually in relatively close proximity.

    A short detour at Easton, MD took us to the charming village of St. Michaels located along the Chesapeake.  An hour south we met US Highway 13 at Salisbury as well as the former Pennsylvania Railroad branch line that stretched to the southern tip of the Delmarva Peninsula.  The 1951 Official Guide of the Railways lists two daily passenger trains serving this route.  The Delmarva Express offered coach and parlor car accommodations on a daylight schedule from New York to Cape Charles with a connecting ferry to Norfolk while the Cavalier ran overnight with coaches and sleepers.  A Sunday-only train, the Furlough, provided nocturnal coach service for military personnel returning to the Norfolk area.  While scheduled passenger service last ran on this line in 1958, freight service still is maintained today by shortline operator Bay Creek Railway.  Special passenger excursion trains have operated on parts of the line on rare occasions during the past 15 years as noted below.

    As the short winter day drifted toward sunset, we reached Chincoteague, Virginia, our destination for the night.  This small community, located on an island of the same name, is a perfect seaside getaway that is the polar opposite of the mega-resorts one finds along many of the nation's beaches.  Bicycling, bird-watching, fishing, and just plain relaxing are a way of life here as well as on adjacent Assateague Island where a herd of famous Chincoteague ponies roams the marshlands and woodlands freely.  Legend states that the diminutive ponies survived the wreck of a Spanish galleon in the 1600s though conflicting theories of their origin exist.  Today the ponies can be spotted from the road that meanders through the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge located on Assateague Island.

    Our lodging selection on Chincoteague Island was the Hampton Inn & Suites which proved to be a terrific choice as the charming hotel backs up to the inlet separating Chincoteague Island from the mainland.  Our studio suite's balcony provided a perfect place to watch the sunset and our accommodation was spacious, comfortable, and quiet.  The indoor pool and hot tub were a nice place to retreat from the chilly December night and in the morning we enjoyed an after-breakfast stroll along the dock behind the hotel where guests can tie up their pleasure boats if that is their desired mode of travel. In the evening we enjoyed driving around the island to view Christmas lights as suggested by the helpful front desk clerk followed by an outstanding dinner at a nondescript roadside restaurant.


Sunset at Chincoteague Island, VA

The view behind the Hampton Inn and Suites in Chincoteague at sunset

The front of the pleasant Hampton Inn and Suites on Chincoteague Island

The attractive breakfast area at the Hampton Inn and Suites


The dock behind the hotel allows easy access for nautical-minded guests


    We spent much of the next morning visiting Assateague Island where we spied a half dozen ponies, a family of mallard ducks, and numerous shorebirds, walked on the beach, and hiked to an old lighthouse on the island's leeward side.  The island's unspoiled seashore is ideal for gazing at the Atlantic Ocean and would be a great spot for swimming during the summer. 



Chincoteague ponies roam adjacent Assateague Island



A pony spotted from the road through the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

An egret seen in the Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge

A great blue heron spotted from the road through the wildlife refuge


The unspoiled beach at Assateague Island

One of many shorebirds patrolling the beach on Assateague Island

Assateague Light is accessible by a short trail


    Continuing our drive southward on US 13 we took a jog into the town of Parksley where the Eastern Shore Railway Museum is housed in the old Pennsylvania Railroad depot.  The grounds outside the depot contain an impressive collection of railroad equipment that has been restored to original appearance.  Included is former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac sleeper "Fairfax River" decked out with a purple letterboard for use on Atlantic Coast Line trains of the mid-1900s, a Seaboard dining car, an RF&P railway post office car, a couple of cabooses, and a wooden box car.


The railway depot in Parksley, VA housing the Eastern Shore Railway Museum

The museum at Parksley hosts a variety of railway equipment

RF&P 14 roomette-2 drawing room sleeper "Fairfax River" with the Santa Train tail sign from a few weeks earlier


A Seaboard dining car


    The Santa Train tail sign on the "Fairfax River" reminded me of the trip I took aboard the museum's Santa Train over this line from Cape Charles to Parksley in December 1995.  The Santa Train continues to be a tradition on the Eastern Shore to the delight of children along the Eastern Shore.  A couple months earlier I had another opportunity to ride an excursion train into Parksley from the opposite direction during a short run from Pocomoke City, Maryland with my son John.  In May 1998 John and I rode a rare Amtrak excursion train called the "Delmarva Special" from Washington, DC to Salisbury via Baltimore and Dover, Delaware. 



A special excursion train prepares to depart Parksley in October 1995 for Pocomoke City, MD

The crew of the annual Santa Train poses before departing Cape Charles, VA for Parksley in December 1995 (Photo by the author)


An Amtrak excursion train dubbed the "Delmarva Special" upon arrival in Salisbury, MD in May 1998 after a journey from Washington, D.C.


    Today the Bay Creek Railway operates freight service over this route with a passenger operation over a short segment of the southern end of the line using a restored 1930s interurban car.  The interurban car, a couple of other old passenger cars, and the company's locomotives are housed in Cape Charles near the southern end of the Delmarva Peninsula.  The railway maintains a train ferry to transport freight cars across the bay from Cape Charles in the same fashion as the PRR did several decades earlier.  Cape Charles is located a short drive west of US 13.  For a good history of rail service to the Delmarva Peninsula including today's passenger operation, visit http://www.baycreekrailway.com/history.html.


Bay Coast Railroad engine # 2000, previously shown on the excursion train and Santa Train, is seen in Cape Charles in December 2011

Engine # 2001 still is lettered for Eastern Shore Railway in this December 2011 view at Cape Charles

    At the southernmost point on the peninsula we crossed the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, a 17 mile crossing of the Chesapeake Bay which uses low bridges, two tunnels, and one moderate sized bridge to traverse the bay.  At the time of its construction in 1964 (a second span was added in 1999), the bridge-tunnel was considered one of the engineering marvels of the world and today it remains a sight to behold as land cannot be seen in any direction near the midpoint of the crossing.

    Our next stop was Williamsburg, one of America's great destinations.  While much of this city is made up of modern conveniences, the main attraction here is Colonial Williamsburg, where visitors are transported into late 1700s America from the moment they enter the colonial area.  The focal point of Colonial Williamsburg is Duke of Gloucester Street which stretches about a mile from the College of William & Mary to the colonial Capitol.  As one strolls this cobblestone street, there is no vehicular traffic to dodge as motorized vehicles are prohibited from the colonial area.  Rather, the visitor will find horse drawn carriages, plenty of pedestrians, and costumed interpreters who play the part of colonial town folk.  Along DOG Street (think of the first letters of the street's name) one will pass several colonial trade shops such as the apothecary, silversmith, weaver, shoemaker, printer, and the tailor.  At Bruton Parish Church it is a thrill to sit in the pew marked for Thomas Jefferson while nearby pew boxes are marked for a who's who of colonial America.  The colonial courthouse stands a block farther down Duke of Gloucester Street and an interpreter tells the story of the judicial process that took place within this edifice.  Several colonial taverns line both sides of the far end of this street, appropriately located close to the colonial Capitol where laws were made and loyalty to the King of England was debated.  The taverns are a fine place to partake of a meal and relax before setting out to see more of Colonial Williamsburg.


Horse-drawn carriages abound in Colonial Williamsburg

The colonial Courthouse

Chownings Tavern

Trade shops and homes line Duke of Gloucester Street



A team of oxen are driven by a colonial man

Another colonial tavern



The colonial Capitol

This costumed interpreter hosted our tour through the colonial Capitol


    Several more trade shops, colonial homes, and the magnificent Governor's Palace line side streets a block or two off Duke of Gloucester Street.  The palace is Colonial Williamsburg's signature building and a feeling of aristocracy descends upon visitors the moment they step into its anteroom and that atmosphere continues through the dining room and above stairs to the private chambers.  Placid gardens and a shrub maze located behind the palace are worth a visit. 



The magnificent Governor's Palace

A collection of pistols, rifles, and swords greets visitors to the Governors Palace


The Maze is a highlight of the lovely grounds behind the Governor's Palace

    The Christmas season is a marvelous time to visit as the front doors of homes and public buildings within the colonial area are decorated with unique colonial type wreaths and a variety of Christmas activities are held.  Our favorite is the nightly lighting of the cressets (metal baskets filled with kindling suspended from poles) lining various Colonial Williamsburg streets accompanied by a fife and drum corps decked in period uniforms.


Christmas decorations on one of the homes fronting on Duke of Gloucester Street

A festive wreath adorns the front door of another Colonial Williamsburg home

Colonial soldiers lead the procession during the holiday lighting of Duke of Gloucester Street

A fife and drum corps plays during the lighting ceremony


Lighting a cresset along Duke of Gloucester Street



Duke of Gloucester Street appears to be ablaze after all the cressets are lighted

    There are many family friendly activities located in modern day Williamsburg as well.  Busch Gardens is the most popular of these.  Many visitors flock to the massive outlet shopping center located along Richmond Road while others enjoy dining at the wide variety of restaurants that surround the city.  Another favorite diversion is a drive along the Colonial Parkway, a meandering two lane road that connects Williamsburg with Yorktown to the east and Jamestown to the west.  Yorktown, located on the York River, is the site of a major American Revolution battlefield and the Yorktown Victory Center.  Jamestown is home to an excellent visitors center recreating the site of the oldest surviving colony in America overlooking the James River.  A pleasant way to spend an hour while in Jamestown is to ride the Jamestown to Surry ferry boat which is part of the Virginia state highway system.  The crossing takes about 20 minutes each way and can be experienced either with a vehicle or as a pedestrian.  Completing the colonial offerings of this area are numerous colonial plantation homes lining the James River between Williamsburg and Charles City.


Shoving off from Jamestown on the ferry boat to Surry

Passing another ferry boat on the busy Jamestown-Surry crossing



Seagulls follow the ferry boat in search of bread crumbs

The winter sky on the 20 minute crossing of the James River


    There are numerous excellent lodging properties in Williamsburg.  On this trip we stayed at the Hampton Inn Historic Area which is a five minute drive from both the colonial area and the Amtrak station.  Due to Williamsburg's popularity, it is advisable to book in advance, especially during the busy summer and Christmas holiday periods.

    Colonial Williamsburg is less than a three hour drive from the Auto Train terminal in Lorton via I-95 and I-64 or about twice as long via the Delmarva Peninsula.  Along the I-95 route one can stop at significant Revolutionary War and Civil War sites around Fredericksburg and visit the popular train watching town of Ashland.  The coastal route allows a more leisurely drive, numerous spots to enjoy the ocean and the bay, and some great attractions in the Norfolk/Hampton Roads area.  Train riders not arriving by Auto Train will find convenient twice daily Amtrak trains linking Williamsburg with the Northeast and connecting in various degrees of convenience with Amtrak's "Silver Star", "Palmetto", and "Carolinian" at Richmond.   For information about Colonial Williamsburg, call (800)HISTORY or visit the website www.history.org.

    The advantage of Auto Train travel was evident as the drive home was tedious and required a night at an en route hotel.  While we cooled our heels in a roadside hotel, passengers aboard the Auto Train were drawing several hundred miles closer to their Florida destination.  Indeed, the Auto Train is the civilized way of travel between Florida and the Washington, D.C. area.


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