ALL ABOARD THE AUTO-TRAIN AND STRASBURG RAILROAD By Jack M. Turner Text and photos by the author
In October 2021 my wife Christine and I rode Amtrak’s northbound
AutoTrain from Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA en route to a visit to
Pennsylvania Dutch Country to be followed by a ride on a Reading &
Northern train excursion to Jim Thorpe, PA. Unfortunately, the
southbound AutoTrain arrived seven hours late which thus delayed our
trip. Our super late arrival in Virginia made it undesirable to
drive to Reading, PA and get sufficient sleep to make the next day’s
excursion. We reworked our trip and made the best of things,
vowing to try again in 2022.
October 3, 2022: We arrived at the Sanford AutoTrain terminal as
servicing of our train was completed. Train # 53 had arrived
close to schedule and would welcome a large crowd which soon filled its
large waiting room almost to capacity. We were entertained by the
passage of two or three SunRail commuter trains and a CSX freight on
the mainline in view beyond the parked auto carrier cars. We felt
fortunate that our train would operate as Category 4 Hurricane Ian had
battered Florida just 5 days earlier then briefly cut across the edge
of the Atlantic Ocean and came ashore again in the Carolinas.
Luckily, the CSX tracks were not flooded out and Amtrak service resumed
October 2. Hence our AutoTrain was just the second departure in
about one week.
northbound AutoTrain prepares to leave Sanford, FL on October 3, 2022.
P40 #831 will lead the train on its 3 minute early departure.
The AutoTrain checkin booth for passenger vehicles at the Sanford terminal.
began about an hour before departure and we moved into Roomettes 3 and
4 in car 32114 “Virginia”, a car I had never ridden previously.
In recent years we have booked roomettes across the hall from one
another to avoid the cramped upper berth. AutoTrain passengers are
encouraged to leave luggage in their automobiles and only bring a small
overnight bag onboard. This made boarding simple and kept our
rooms from becoming overcrowded.
Departure at 4:57pm was 3 minutes early as the schedule had recently
been moved back by one hour. Soon we crossed the St. Johns River
where it flows into Lake Monroe and 30 minutes into our journey rolled
by the DeLand Amtrak station. Standing water in the woods
reminded us that the hurricane had impacted the area but not as badly
as expected. Our 6:00pm dinner seating was announced and we
happily made our way through the deluxe sleeper and into the dining
car. It was a welcome change from the prior year to be able to
eat in the dining car rather than have meals delivered to our
rooms. The flat iron steak accompanied by mashed potatoes and
peas was delicious as train # 52 navigated the former Seaboard Coast
The lights of Jacksonville illuminated the scene as we made our way
northward then the AutoTrain pulled to a stop on the mainline adjacent
to Amtrak’s Clifford Lane station. The Silver Star waited
patiently between runs on one of the station tracks as it was
temporarily truncated to run Jacksonville to New York due to
hurricane-damaged track south of Orlando. Continuing north, the
AutoTrain made a fine sight on curves with 14 passenger cars and
approximately 30 auto carriers pulled by one P40 and one P42 engine.
At Savannah the Palmetto had just arrived from New York and would lay
over until its return trip north in the morning. Charleston
looked none the worse from being the point of Hurricane Ian’s second
southeastern landfall a few days earlier. During the crew change
stop in Florence at 1:21am I fell asleep as we continued through the
Carolinas. Waking up, I peered out my window to find us stopped
at 5:05am adjacent to a freight train. Highway sounds could be
heard close by and all kinds of scenarios ran through my mind as the
train sat and sat. Finally, 45minutes later the freight train
began to move and about 20 minutes later our AutoTrain also eased
forward. The source of the highway sounds soon became apparent as
we passed beneath an Interstate highway overpass. I grabbed a
couple more hours of sleep and headed to the dining car for continental
breakfast. Christine and I were soon joined at our table by a
pastor and his son from south of Tampa who were great company. It
occurred to us that the Lord had brought us together with the two of
them to share our faith and learn more about their ministry.
Familiar Virginia sights flashed by as we passed the Petersburg
station, crossed the James River, and spotted the Richmond train
station. Moments later train # 52 rolled through Ashland, another
familiar sight from my semester at Randolph-Macon College back in the
early 1970s. North of Fredericksburg we joined the Potomac River
which flowed past on the right side of the railway then charted a
course through Quantico Marine Base. Arrival in Lorton came at
10:38am, just over one half- hour late, a vast improvement over the
prior year’s trip.
Vehicles are unloaded from the auto carriers at Lorton.
Our minivan was unloaded within an hour and we felt fortunate as many
passengers would have a much longer wait as the train had carried 143
vehicles and 244 passengers. The drive northward took us briefly
through Maryland into southern Pennsylvania. Our first
destination was Pennsylvania Dutch country, home of a large Amish
population. The lodging at Amish View Inn and Suites was the
perfect place to stay as it opened in 2003 with our adults-only wing
constructed in 2014. The feel of the hotel is first class and our
spacious room held up to that standard with large windows presenting a
panoramic view of an Amish farm located behind the inn. Looking
straight down from the windows, we gazed into a corn field and could at
times watch an Amish farmer working in his field behind a team of
mules. The spacious room had a recliner and a sofa perfectly
suited for watching television. The oversized bathroom contained
a claw footed bathtub and a separate shower in addition to the other
usual features. Breakfast is included at Amish View Inn and
Suites and offers fresh cooked products from Lancaster County including
eggs, pecan sticky buns, waffles, and a delicious concoction called
“ferhoodle” that combines sausage, eggs, onions, green peppers,
potatoes, and other delicious ingredients.
The view from
our room at the Amish View Inn and Suites in Bird-in-Hand, PA. An
Amish farmer is often visible working in the corn fields and tending to
The front of the Amish View Inn and Suites is most welcoming.
Located in Bird-in-Hand, PA, the Amish View Inn is centrally located
for seeing all of the local sights. The Amish way of life is
rooted in tradition dating back many years. As one drives along
area highways and local roads, they will pass numerous horse-drawn
buggies taking Amish residents about their daily activities as they do
not own cars. Most live on lovely farms which can be identified
by the absence of power lines to their houses and the presence of
clotheslines often bearing clothes drying in the breeze. We
enjoyed visiting The Amish Village which replicates a local community
with a home, one room schoolhouse, general store, and farm complete
with live farm animals. After touring the village, a great way to
see the area was on a minibus tour offered by The Amish Village.
Our tour guide provided interesting insight into the Amish lifestyle
and took us in a couple of businesses located on Amish farms.
These had a great variety of handmade items and provided a chance to
interact with local residents. Another major benefit of the tour
was that it allowed us to learn the back roads which made self-touring
easy during the remainder of our visit to the area.
The primary means of local travel for the Amish is the horse and buggy.
Amish Village offers a great glimpse of a recreated Amish
community. Tours of the area provide views of farms, fields,
schools and other highlights of the Amish way of life.
Another good introduction to Pennsylvania Dutch life can be found at
The Amish Experience which is located on the grounds of The Amish View
Inn and Suites. This facility contains a replica Amish home and
school as well as a short movie about an Amish family. A bus tour
of the surrounding farmlands is another feature of this attraction.
Good food is synonymous with Pennsylvania Dutch country and there are a
multitude of all you can eat smorgasboard restaurants dotting the
area. Our favorite is Miller’s Smorgasboard located just a short
drive from the hotel. Authentic Amish meals can be found at
Katie’s Kitchen, a small restaurant a stone’s throw from The Amish
Village. A number of other fine eateries exist in the area and it
is fun to discover these gems. A great between meals stop is
Immergut Hand-Rolled Soft Pretzels in nearby Intercourse, PA.
Here one will find Amish women making tasty pretzels right in view of
customers and it is hard to turn them down.
Heading south from The Amish Village, we came upon the village of
Strasburg, PA. There we found the Choo Choo Barn, a well-stocked
store selling all types of model and wooden trains and other railroad
accessories. Another similar store shares the same parking
lot. Immediately east is the Strasburg Railroad which offers a 45
minute steam powered train trip through scenic Amish farmlands.
Our ten car train named “The Susquehanna” was pulled by former Norfolk
& Western 4-8-0 # 475 and it was a treat to hear the melodious
whistle echo through the farmlands that dot the valley. The rail
line dates back to 1862 and connects Strasburg to Paradise, PA where
the locomotive uncouples and runs around the train to pull it back to
Strasburg. The runaround track is adjacent to the former
Pennsylvania mainline and fortunate passengers may catch a glimpse of a
passing Amtrak train. During our visit we looked at N&W
J-class steam engine 611 which has called Strasburg RR “home” during
our past two visits. On select dates the J has led trips over the
line to Paradise. In 2021 we also watched “Thomas” and “Percy”
from the “Thomas and Friends” television series as they pulled
excursion trains over the Strasburg RR line. Information about
upcoming trips and special events can be found on the railroad’s web
site. On one visit we also took a shop tour which visited the
steam and car repair facilities. These tours can be purchased
through the railroad’s web site.
A Strasburg Railroad excursion train between runs during a November 2021 visit.
Inside Strasburg RR parlor car “Marian” built in 1910 for Boston & Maine.
Reading observation car #1 used on “The Crusader” is displayed at the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania in Strasburg.
N&W 475, a 4-8-0 steam engine built in 1906, couples to the excursion train passenger cars at Strasburg.
Across the street from the Strasburg Railroad is another “must see”
attraction, the Railroad Museum of Pennsylvania. This impressive
facility displays numerous steam, diesel, and electric locomotives
(including an Amtrak GG1, an E60, and an AEM7) plus a fine passenger car collection. Among the notable passenger cars displayed are ex-PRR sleeper observation car “Tower View”
that was a feature car on that railway’s Broadway Limited; PRR sleeper
“Scioto Rapids”, Reading coach observation car # 1 from the Crusader;
Lehigh Valley rail diesel car # 40; and a Metroliner cab control
car. There are also several kid-friendly areas designed to
interest and educate children about the operation and the importance of
N&W J class 4-8-4 is housed at Strasburg Railroad in this October 2022 scene.
The Lancaster County area is a great place to visit and there are
numerous craft shops, food markets, and toy stores worth
visiting. Several Amtrak trains stop in Lancaster and the
AutoTrain terminal near Washington, DC is less than three hours
In my next story, we ride the Reading & Northern steam excursion
then continue northward into New England where we ride the newest
Amtrak route thus bringing me back to having ridden 100% of the current
author wishes to thank the following proprietors of Lancaster County
businesses for their kind assistance with this story: Katie Gensemer,
David Fickes, and Hope Graby.