Orlando To Arlington: One Night On The Amtrak Auto Train

When it came to the logistics of how to move to Virginia, I gave it a great deal of thought.  I had movers carry the furniture, but there was still a bunch that traveled with me- things I wouldn’t entrust to a mover or things I knew I would need right away before the movers would get to my destination.    I considered three ways to do this:

  • Fly up and have some auto transporter move my car.  This would be the most expensive option, of course.
  • Drive up.  It’s about 850 miles between Orlando and Arlington, which means at least twelve hours of I-95 driving.  While this is theoretically the least expensive option, there’s gas to consider, and very probably a hotel in the middle.  Also, I hate driving more than a few hours.
  • Take the Auto Train. Amtrak’s Auto Train runs every day in both directions between Sanford, Florida (just north of Orlando) to Lorton, Virginia (just south of Arlington).  I didn’t even know this existed until I started researching ways to get up to Virginia for the move.  A one-way ticket for both me and my car cost a little more than five hundred dollars.  As you might have guessed based on the title of the post, I chose this option.

On Thursday, August 6th, it was finally time to move to Virginia.  I woke up, checked out of my final Orlando hotel, had a quick I-Hop breakfast, and drove my packed-up car to the Auto Train station in Sanford.

I foolishly let the little mapping robot in my car tell me how to get to the station instead of just following the signs.  I took a really winding backroads path to the Auto Train station, but at least I finally found it.

When you arrive, you follow the markings on the pavement to the first check-in.  The special rail cars on the left side are called autoracks, and that’s where the cars go.  I’ll talk more about those later.   The train on the right side is the passenger compartment-  they’re separated in Sanford because they need to load the cars and passengers separately, but they get linked up before we depart.

When you get to the first check-in, the attendant will scan your printed ticket.  I paid a small extra fee to be one of the first thirty cars unloaded when we got to Virginia, so the door of my car got a magnet slapped on the driver’s side door with a priority number.

One really cool thing about the Auto Train is that you can pack up your car like a giant checked bag.  You won’t have access to your car during the trip, but it’s still a good way to carry a lot of stuff.  I packed the things I would need for one night in a smaller bag, including my laptop and some sleep clothing, and left the rest in the car.

After the first check-in, you pull up to a canopy where vehicles are being taken in different lanes.  This is where I said goodbye to my car for the duration- they have you take your carry-on bag for the train and leave the keys in the car.

I’ll focus for a moment on the car’s journey-  there’s a dedicated staff at the Amtrak station that functions sort of like valet parking, except that in this case, they’re parking your car in the autoracks.

The autoracks are really neat.  They’re bi-level, which is why you can see some ramps going up into them while the closest car in this photo is driving down a ramp into the lower part.    I watched them take my car in, and it was on the lower level for the duration.  Auto Train consists are reportedly nearly three-fourths of a mile long and can transport over three hundred cars per trip.

A quick aside for the linguistically minded among you:  Prior to reading about autoracks, I had never heard the term consist as it applies to trains.  Considering how much time I’ve spent on trains, that’s kind of amazing.   A consist is a set of railroad vehicles forming a complete train-  in other words, the engine plus the passenger cars plus the diner car and lounge plus all the autoracks together are a consist.      New words are fun!

Here’s a short video of the crew driving someone’s vehicle onto the autoracks.  I watched a bunch of these because I’m a huge nerd and it was fascinating to me.

Let’s move on to the passenger experience.  Both the Sanford and Lorton stations have a fairly large waiting area for pre-boarding.   In the case of the Sanford location, there’s a shuttle that runs every twenty minutes to downtown Sanford a few miles away, for anyone who wants to kill time before departure.  I elected to stay put.  (Although with Hollerbach’s just two miles away, it was very tempting.)

There’s a check-in counter where I checked in and was given a compartment assignment.  I’ll talk more about that a little further on.

I mentioned earlier that the Auto Train consist is nearly three-fourths of a mile long- this is not an exaggeration.  This is only the passenger compartments and dining car, and only part of that.  Getting the entire train into one photo would not be possible from this close.

This is the hallway near my little sleeping compartment.  Some of the larger sleeping compartments had a different hallway along one side of the train with the compartments being all to one side, but this area was all “Roomettes.”

A Roomette, in Amtrak terms, is a small enclosed compartment with two seats facing each other and a small fold-down table in the middle.  There’s a knob for temperature control, a power outlet, a light switch, and curtains for privacy during sleep time.   Also, the door latches from the inside, which is reassuring.

At night, the two seats can be pushed flat to make one bed, and a separate bunk pulls down from the ceiling.  When it was time to sleep, I actually chose to use the upper bunk instead of the lower, even though I was alone and could have done either one.

Our departure was at 4pm, so they rolled the passenger compartment forward, coupled the autoracks, and then we were off.  While they were coupling us and getting us ready, an engineer somewhere on the train gave us some raw statistics:  Our Auto Train had 182 passengers, 14 crew members, and four engineers/conductors.   111 people were in sleeping compartments, and our train was carrying 101 four-wheeled vehicles and three two-wheelers.

The first few hours of the train ride were all Florida, but I still saw a few pretty things out of my window.   There were lots and lots of cows, for a start.

And waterways, weather, little boats…

…and some neat smokestacks.

My sleeping-compartment ticket included a dinner and a small continental breakfast.  When I checked in back in Sanford, I was given a small flyer with my dinner choices.  Normally, you would be assigned a dinner slot and you would go to the dining car for this.  These aren’t normal times, however, so all meals were taken in the sleeping compartments.

Technically I can say that I had dinner in Jacksonville, but I was just passing through.

Here were the selections for dinner:

The flyer was actually not correct about everything, but they were pretty close.  For example, here’s the “first glass of wine” mentioned above.  You can tell it’s a red because the cup has an ‘R‘ Sharpied onto the lid.

Presentation aside, the food was great.  I chose the flatiron steak.  I wasn’t really expecting much from an Amtrak steak, but it was deliciousThe veggies, mashed potato, and bread were also excellent and I cleaned my plate.

Dessert was a chocolate cake.  It was delicious and moist.  It was most definitely not a lie.

After dinner, I resumed staring out the window at all the passing landscape.  There were parts of the journey that seemed like it was 97% trees and rusted out El Caminos.   I’m only half-joking.  I’ve never seen so many El Caminos in one day before, and ALL of them were abandoned in wooded areas.

Soon after we crossed into Georgia, we passed the distinct water tower of Folkston.  I didn’t get a good shot of the tower, so I yoinked this one off the web to illustrate.

Pretty soon after that, it became too dark to really see much outside of the train, aside from the occasional gas station or Wal-Mart in the distance.    The attendant asked me during boarding what time I wanted him to configure the bed.  I had him come by at around ten.  I played some zoom trivia for a bit, but my connection wasn’t very stable so it was not very successful.  Amtrak technically has wi-fi but they don’t support video chats or streaming of any kind, so I was tethered to my phone and it was a little wonky.

The Auto Train makes only one stop in between endpoints, and it’s not for passengers.   The train makes a brief halt in Florence, South Carolina to change engineers, refuel, and refill the water tanks.    I was still awake when we made this stop, but I was exhausted.  After a time, I climbed into the upper bunk and slept fitfully.

When I woke up, we were already in Virginia, cruising through Richmond.  I was awake enough to see Squash-A-Penny Junction Antiques when we rolled past, and I rather wish I’d had the camera out.  Set near the junction of two major rail lines, it was originally built in the 1860s as a general store.  Now it’s an eclectic antique shop, and it just looks neat.   I definitely want to double back to see it at some later point.

Right after we passed the Squash-A-Penny in Doswell, the attendant brought my “continental breakfast,” which was a banana, a crumb cake, some milk, a juice cup-  not really a very heavy breakfast, but that’s ok because we were less than two hours from arrival.

Naturally, I started looking out the window again after breakfast, and just outside of Fredericksburg, we passed a big stone pyramid in an otherwise open grass field.  I can’t pass up the opportunity to find out why a monument might be out in a field, so I looked it up later.  Here’s what I learned:

This field is actually part of the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park.  The pyramid, composed of granite stones and standing 23 feet tall, was erected in 1903 after a request during the late 1800s by the Confederate Memorial Literary Society.   This American Civial War monument marks the point where General George G. Meade’s Union division penetrated a gap in ‘Stonewall’ Jackson’s lines on December 13, 1862, during the Battle of Fredericksburg. Over the years it has become known as the Meade Pyramid.   The more you know… 

Toward the very end of the journey, the Auto Train spent a lot of time hugging the Virginia shore of the Potomac River, with Maryland across the way.

Finally, after a little more than sixteen hours on the rails, we made a slightly-early arrival at Lorton Station in Virginia.    They uncoupled the autoracks first and started to offload the cars while the passengers deboarded.   I have read that the entire Auto Train can offload all of the cars in a little more than an hour, but my car was pulled up almost as soon as I reached the front door of the station.

Ten minutes after I stepped down from the passenger compartment, I was back on the road, driving the last eighteen miles or so to my new apartment in Arlington.

Have you ever traveled by Auto Train?

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