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NORTHBOUND ON AMTRAK’S AUTO TRAIN
NORTHBOUND ON AMTRAK’S AUTO TRAIN
By Jack M. Turner

When the idea of visiting Pennsylvania Dutch country began to percolate in our minds, my wife Christine and I had to consider the fact that it would take the better part of three days to drive from our Florida home to Lancaster County, PA.  The alternative, an overnight on Amtrak’s Auto Train, was infinitely more appealing as it would avoid a long drive and deposit us close to our destination in relaxed fashion.

Auto-Train commenced service in 1971 as a privately run train that was the brainchild of company president Eugene Garfield.  The timing was right as most private railroads were turning over passenger service to Amtrak which freed up a large fleet of passenger cars.  The majority of the fleet came from the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and Seaboard Coast Line railroads and included an ample supply of dome cars and all-bedroom sleeping cars that the company acquired before Amtrak could add them to its roster.  Additionally, Walt Disney World had opened at about the same time which provided a new, popular destination for potential passengers.  The colorful single level Auto-Train operated successfully for approximately ten years before financial troubles brought on by a couple of derailments and a failed expansion to the Midwest market forced it into bankruptcy.  After approximately two years Amtrak picked up the Auto Train service (dropping the hyphen) operating between the same two terminals in Sanford, FL and Lorton, VA.  Like the original service, Amtrak’s Auto Train originally used single level passenger cars including a handful of full length dome cars.

Operationally both the private Auto-Train and Amtrak’s Auto Train appear almost identical.  Passengers deliver their vehicle to the departure station by 2:30pm and show their ticket at a check-in booth entering the property.  They next unload their overnight luggage since their vehicle will be inaccessible until arrival on the other end of the trip.  A railroad employee then drives the car, minivan, or SUV onto an enclosed auto rack car where it will ride until the next morning.  Motorcycles are loaded onto platform-like devices that securely hold multiple motorcycles aboard the auto carrier car,  Herein lies one difference between the original A-T and today’s Amtrak service as non-commercial minivans and SUVs did not exist in the 1970s and motorcycles were not transported on the train.

Inside the Auto Train terminal, passengers check-in and make a reservation for the desired dinner time, either 5:00 or 7:30pm (additional sittings are scheduled on the busiest days).  Then it is time to sit and wait for the boarding call.  The trip itself passes quickly with a leisurely dinner followed by watching the sights pass by outside then a restful night in a sleeping car or a somewhat restful night in a coach seat.  Continental breakfast is served in the dining car then arrival on the other end of the route comes around 9:00am.  Waiting for one’s vehicle is a guessing game as there is no correlation between the order of check-in at the departure terminal and the order of delivery at the destination.  The reason for this is evident by simply observing that some vehicles are loaded on the top level of the auto carrier while others ride on the lower level.  There are multiple cuts of auto carriers, each consisting of five to seven auto carrier cars, thus the positioning of an individual vehicle is impossible to ascertain.  Upon arrival at the destination, the strings of auto carriers may be separated at different spots thus jumbling the order of delivery further.  The only recent change has been the introduction of a premium feature that allows the option to pay more for priority unloading that ensures being one of the first couple dozen cars off the train.

After a five hour drive we arrive at the Sanford Auto Train terminal at 12:30pm and quickly complete our vehicle check-in.  We find the terminal to be modern and spacious which is a good thing as within an hour it will be packed on this busy Friday in late June 2017.  In my eagerness to check-in and obtain a 5:00 dinner reservation, I fail to watch our minivan’s loading which means I have no idea whether it will come off the upper or lower level when we reach Lorton.  This will lead to some guessing when I observe that process the next morning.
 
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Strings of auto carriers at left and passenger cars at right.  These will be combined before Auto Train’s departure from Sanford.  Note the check-in booth ahead.

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The check-in booth at Auto Train’s Sanford terminal

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Metallic signs make identifying vehicles easy upon arrival the next day

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A car is loaded onto the Auto Train.  It will be inaccessible until arrival in Lorton

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A customized Auto Train ticket jacket is provided at check-in

The next hour is filled with people-watching and walking the platform to record the car numbers making up our train’s passenger section.  The auto carriers will be attached just before departure thus I am unable to make note of their car numbers.  At 2:10pm a northbound SunRail commuter train passes by on the adjacent CSX mainline followed a while later by the northbound Silver Meteor which includes a Viewliner II diner, three Viewliner sleepers, and a Viewliner baggage car plus five Amfleet II coaches.  Around 2:30 sleeper passengers are invited aboard and we are happy to find our car clean and comfortable with well functioning air conditioning on a 90 plus degree day.  There are six Superliner sleeping cars on our train and I have previously traveled aboard four of them.  Much to my delight, our accommodations are in car 32101 “North Carolina”, a car I had never slept in.  This seemed appropriate since we would spend a week in that state later in our trip. 

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Auto Train cars will load on two tracks at Sanford due to length of the train

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P40 # 832, not in use this day, stands next to the rear of the first cut of passenger cars in Sanford

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Our sleeping car 32101 “North Carolina”

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Sleeping car 32505 "Palm Springs" is one of two deluxe sleepers on the northbound Auto Train.

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Lounge car 33100 is a former dining car modified for Auto Train

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A diagram along the platform helps passengers locate their train cars

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The Sanford terminal is crowded prior to our June 23, 2017 departure

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Northbound SunRail commuter train passes the Auto Train terminal

While we waited for departure I watched a Space X Falcon 9 rocket liftoff from Kennedy Space Center about 50 miles southeast of Sanford.  The window of Roomette 3 faced just the right direction to watch the rocket trail streak through and above a cloud.  This was one of three occasions during my life when my railroading and space hobbies had converged at the same time.  My wife, meanwhile, had a better view of activity on the platform as Roomette 4 faced westward which was the station side.  We had elected roomettes across the hall from one another to avoid one of us having to sleep in the limited space of the upper berth and this arrangement proved ideal as we tested it out on our western trip the prior summer.

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Space X launch (white streak above the cloud) from Kennedy Space Center as seen from my roomette

The Auto Train departed Sanford at 3:43pm, 17 minutes early which is a common occurrence once all passengers and vehicles are loaded aboard and the railroad dispatcher gives a clear signal to depart.  On this day train # 52 consisted of 16 Superliner cars carrying 484 passengers and 33 auto carrier cars transporting 205 vehicles.  Up front P40 engines 830 and 814 were in charge of the three quarter mile long train. 

Shortly after easing out onto the CSX main line, we passed SunRail’s Sanford station then crossed the Lake Monroe/St. Johns River rail bridge with several pleasure boats visible on either side.  Just north of the bridge we passed the SunRail train seen earlier as it prepared to begin a southbound run at the DeBary station.  Amtrak’s DeLand station filled my window 25 minutes into the journey followed by another Amtrak station in Palatka 50 minutes later.  A moment later we headed to the dining car for a tasty and leisurely dinner served by an attentive crew.  Only one car stood between our sleeper and the dining car and even novice train riders noticed the difference as one straight aisle ran along one side of the sleeper whose upper level contained ten bedrooms.  Most Superliner sleepers contain ten roomettes and five bedrooms on the upper level with a hallway running down the center of the car’s roomette end then veering to the right and following the wall opposite the bedrooms.  A second dining car, which served coach passengers, was the last passenger car. 

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Crossing the Lake Monroe/St. Johns River bridge leaving Sanford

Passage through Green Cove Springs, Orange Park, and the Jacksonville Naval Air Station area provided pleasant viewing as we dined as did the crossing of the Ortega River which hosted luxurious yachts in its waters as well as adjacent marinas.  While we finished dessert the Auto Train passed under Interstate 10 then halted near Honeymoon Wye where the line linking northern points with downstate Florida meets the CSX New Orleans line and the Florida East Coast route to Miami.  About 20 minutes later a long southbound freight passed then we were underway again.  Within ten minutes the Auto Train breezed past Amtrak’s Jacksonville station then crossed the St. Marys River and entered Georgia about 30 minutes later.

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A sailboat on the Ortega River with the Jacksonville skyline behind

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Auto Train stops at Honeymoon Wye for a southbound freight train to pass

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An Auto Train poster on our sleeper’s bulkhead.  Wi-Fi worked well on this train.

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Crossing the St. Marys River heading from Florida into Georgia

Another Amtrak station, Jesup, flashed by my wife’s window about an hour later followed by nice sunset views as we crossed various rivers and marshlands.  The Savannah station was in between the departure of the northbound Silver Meteor and arrival of the southbound Palmetto when our train glided past at 9:17pm.  Soon the Auto Train crossed the Savannah River and rolled into South Carolina.  After passing through Hardeeville and Ridgeland we met the tardy Palmetto near Green Pond as bedtime arrived.  As usually happens on the first night of a train trip, sleep came slowly but I finally drifted off as the upper level of Superliner cars seem to provide a smoother ride than single level Viewliner sleepers used on the Silver Meteor and Silver Star.

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The Altamaha River north of Jesup, GA at sunset

While I slept the Auto Train made its crew change and servicing stop in Florence as it has since the inception of the original Auto-Train.  I had awakened to note that we were stopped for about 15 minutes at Florence.  My alarm clock finally woke me for good as we approached Ashland, VA and Randolph-Macon College a couple minutes before 7:00am.  Soon we overtook a northbound Amtrak regional train on the double track former Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac line near Doswell.  Breakfast time had arrived and we found a filling continental breakfast of cereal, cinnamon rolls, banana, and yogurt waiting for us in the dining car.  The Virginia countryside was a good complement to our meal as colonial Fredericksburg, the US Marines Quantico base, several river crossings, and the nearby Potomac River provided great views as we dined.

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Crossing the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg, VA

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One of many river crossings in Virginia

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The final river crossing before arrival in Lorton

Our efficient sleeping car attendant Louis had made up our rooms while we ate and we spent the final minutes of the journey planning the day’s activities.  North of Woodbridge train # 52 crossed over to the lead track taking us into the Lorton terminal and we pulled to a stop at 8:25am, 34 minutes early.  Moments after we stepped off the train the station’s public address system came alive with car numbers, making sure to identify the first cars unloaded as priority vehicles, i.e., their owners had paid extra to ensure they were among the first off.  It took about 45 minutes for our minivan to be unloaded, however the time passed quickly as we alternated between sitting inside the terminal building and standing outside watching the vehicle unloading process.

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The first cut of auto carriers are positioned for unloading at Lorton

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Advertisement on the side of one of our auto carriers

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The modern Auto Train Terminal in Lorton, VA

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Automobiles are efficiently unloaded at Lorton

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An Amtrak employee enters vehicle numbers and an automated voice will announce that the vehicle is ready for pick up

The early morning arrival in Lorton is perfect for starting a day of sightseeing in or around Washington, DC or driving to most points in the Northeast.  Arriving on a weekend day was especially convenient.  Our plans for the day included visiting the historic Civil War Manassas Battlefield about one-half hour from Lorton then making a late afternoon visit to the Air & Space Museum Annex on the grounds of Dulles Airport.  This facility houses many aviation and space artifacts that could not be accommodated in the National Air & Space Museum in downtown Washington.  Our primary goal on this visit was to see Space Shuttle Discovery which flew 39 missions between 1984 and 2011.  The shuttle was awe inspiring and alone was worth a visit to this facility.  Additionally, several earlier spacecraft are on display along with a Concorde supersonic jet, the Enola Gay bomber, a Russian MIG and numerous other civilian and military aircraft.

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The Henry House is preserved in the Manassas Battlefield

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The author poses by a cannon in the battlefield

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The Stonewall Jackson Monument

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A stone house used by Union soldiers as a field hospital during the Civil War

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The stone bridge over Bull Run

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Space Shuttle Discovery at the Air and Space Annex in Chantilly, VA

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The back side of Discovery reveals a look at the main engines

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The Air and Space Annex contains a variety of aircraft

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An Air France Concorde is tucked in between other aircraft

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A model of a National Air Lines 727 jet

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This model of a Southern Airways DC-9 represents a former airline

After a night in a nearby hotel we proceeded to Lancaster County, PA to visit Pennsylvania Dutch Country, the Strasburg Railroad, and the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania.  Those sights are covered in my story “Visiting Strasburg Railroad and Lancaster County, PA.”


LINKS

Amtrak Auto Train    https://www.amtrak.com/auto-train

Original Auto-Train Roster    http://www.themetrains.com/auto-train-roster.htm

Manassas National Battlefield Park    https://www.nps.gov/mana/index.htm

Air and Space Museum Annex    https://airandspace.si.edu/udvar-hazy-center