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?



Photo Tuesday: Leaving Tokyo

I wrote a whole slew of posts detailing the things that I saw (and ate) during the five weeks I spent in and around Tokyo last year.  I’ve posted dozens of photographs from that trip on this blog, but I don’t think I ever got around to posting this one.

This is one of my favorite photographs from my time in Japan.  It was taken from the high speed train ride back to the airport.  I took dozens of pictures out of the train window, but at this particular moment, we were passing through a busy street near Tokyo Katsushika.   There is so much happening in this photograph, from bike riders patiently waiting for the train to pass so that they can cross the street, to the people going in and out of shops down the street.  Plus:  a Kirin vending machine!

Every time I look at this photograph, I see some new detail that I hadn’t noticed previously.  What do you see when you look?


The South Florida Railway Museum

Much of the time that I spend with Amelie involves trains.  Specifically, we use them to see one another instead of taking the drive.  When Amelie comes up to visit me, I usually pick her up here, at the Deerfield Beach Tri-Rail station.


Tri-Rail is short for tri-county rail, and it’s a north-south rail corridor in South Florida that connects Miami, Ft. lauderdale, West Palm Beach, and parts in between.


The Deerfield Beach Station  is also one of several throughout the state that serves as an Amtrak station.  Amtrak is America’s answer to the Deutsche Bahn, except it’s not as convenient, not as cheap, and not as useful.  It’s also not as punctual, because Amtrak leases the rail lines from the freight companies, but that’s a different post.


One day in late April, I noticed this sign on the street near the entrance.


Following the sign, I found another one pointing to a nondescript door.  As it turns out, they were doing some work on the external face of the building.  Now, seven months later, there’s a clear sign to indicate that this is an actual museum.   At the time, it looked pretty sketchy.


Inside, however, it was kind of amazing.  This, it turns out, is the home of the South Florida Railway Museum and Model Railroad Club.   Housed in the old rail terminal building, it’s only natural that the museum contained  model trains.


This part of the museum reminded me of Miniatur Wunderland.


There was a lot of detail here, including a tiny herd of tiny cows.


The rail model was a giant construct in the center of a large open room, but the walls were filled with other things.


This vintage Coca-Cola machine was actually being used by the museum staffers as a refridgerator-  the place on the left where you’d normally see Coke bottles is being used to keep the coffee creamer cold.


There were dozens of model engines on the walls representing different time periods and train styles.


Some of them have specific historic importance, like this one from an old hobby store in Miami.  The store is long gone.


Even train cars need sweaters when it gets chilly out.


To a model train enthusiast, this museum is a goldmine.


This license plate had an inside joke for train engineers, but I can’t remember what the word on the bottom was.


Cheap plastic sunglasses from the launch of Tri-Rail serve as memorabilia here.


The museum has a fantastic collection of items from the golden age of rail travel, including an ash tray, a drinking glass, and “pasteurized drinking water” as it was distributed on passenger trains in the past.


There are lots of ash trays in the museum.  People smoked a lot back then.


One huge corner of the museum is dedicated to old Amtrak swag.


I think I had a set of those Amtrak playing cards when I was a kid.


This old control board is stuffed to the gills with ancient communications gear, and a now-rare example of an analog word processor.  Er.  Typewriter.  I mean Typewriter.


This old Amtrak sign is about six feet tall, up near the ceiling in the front.


Here’s more examples of older rail signs.  These haven’t changed all that much in the intervening years.


Rail Travel And A Giant Gundam!

Two of my favorite things about Japan are amazing rail travel and giant robots.    Naturally, I went out of my way to see both.

This is the Marunouchi entrance of Tokyo Station, the main intercity rail terminal in Tokyo.


This structure is just the tip of the iceberg, though.  Tokyo Station is the busiest rail station in Japan, serving over 3,000 trains per day.  The station sprawls out beneath the surface, servicing local metro, local train, and Shinkansen (high speed rail) trains.

Interestingly, Tokyo Station has “sister station” agreements with Amsterdam Centraal railway station in the Netherlands, Grand Central Station in New York, and Hsinchu Station in Taiwan. (Well, I think it’s interesting.  Your mileage may vary.)


When approaching Tokyo Station on the subway lines, it’s not unusual to see Nozomi 700 trains, high speed rail on its way into or out of the city.


The Shinkansen have a maximum operating speed of 200 miles per hour, so the best way to get a clear picture of one is to wait for them to stop.


The 700 series Shinkansen are easily recognized by their flat “duck bill” nose and that fast zooming noise you here any time one passes by very, very fast..


The signs on the cars alternate between Japanese and English, but it’s still a good idea to figure out where your wagon stops before the train arrives.  The trains move in and out of stations very, very quickly and all seats are assigned except for the last two or three wagons.

Here is a cautionary tale for Shinkansen use:  When I was returning to Tokyo from Kyoto,  I boarded the Shinkansen at my platform four minutes before my train was scheduled to depart.   It left the station a moment after I took my seat, and two minutes later, the train for which I actually had a ticket arrived.   I realized that I was on the wrong train a short while later, and I thought I would be fine.  However, a helpful fellow train passenger explained to me that this was a local train.  Although it was still a Nozomi, it was stopping at far more places.  This train would still get me back to Tokyo, but it would get me there several hours later.  Luckily, I was able to switch trains in Nagoya to another Express Nozomi that was bound for Tokyo.  The trains in Japan are so amazing that even with the transfer in Nagoya, I arrived in Tokyo less than an hour past my original scheduled arrival.  True story.


Here’s a photograph of people waiting for the train to pass, because I thought it was a neat picture.


You might be wondering why I mentioned giant robots in the first sentence of this post.    I mentioned giant robots because there’s a 1:1 scale Gundam statue in front of Diver City Tokyo in Odaiba-  that’s actual size.


At certain times of the day, the Gundam is lit up, with steam bellowing from its chest.  The Gundam is affiliated with Gundam Front Tokyo, a fun experience for any Gundam enthusiast.


Diver City Tokyo is basically a multi-level shopping mall, which makes this a fascinating place to find a giant Gundam statue.  Inside Diver City, I found a Krispy Kreme!


This picture is really just to show you scale.  You can see the people right on the other side of the Gundam’s giant right foot.


Have you ever been on a Shinkansen?  What’s your opinion of giant Gundam suits?

Arrival In Japan

From May 10th until June 13th of this year, I was in Japan.    In those five weeks, I took nearly 2500 photographs.   I have since parsed them down to 489 that are going to show up in this blog.   I’m not going to post them all at once, though, because I actually like my readers (both of them) and I don’t want to overload you guys.

Besides, some of them are kind of silly, like this snap of the screen on the back of the airplane seat during my twelve and a half hour plane trip from Detroit to Tokyo-Narita Airport.


We landed in Tokyo on Sunday morning a little before lunchtime.  My first visible sign that I was in Japan was right outside the plane window. The guys handling luggage were all wearing safety helmets.  Japan is just full of people in safety helmets while doing their jobs.  I have a whole bunch of other safety helmet pictures for another post later on.


Thank goodness there’s plenty of English in the signage in the airport.  I don’t know a lick of Kanji.


One of the first things I needed to do in the airport was to find the post office.  I had previously arranged to rent a wi-fi device so that I would have data throughout my trip.  This device is about the size of a deck of playing cards, and it gave my phone Internet access for the rest of my time in Japan.  The WiFi Rental Store had reasonable rates and delivered it right to the post office, charged and ready to go.   This was invaluable for finding my way around, especially on that first day.


The next order of business was getting on the express train that took me from the airport to the city.   When I was waiting to board, the seats all rearranged themselves so that they were facing forward when the train started moving again.  This picture is halfway through the little automated seat rotation dance.  High tech train seats are neat!


The train into the city was very high speed, and I had a nice view out of the windows during the ride to Ueno station.   I’m pretty sure this is a rice paddy, but I’m not positive.


I think this was the Sumida river.   I landed on a very pretty day.


In Ueno station, I changed to the regular trains to get closer to the hotel.  This is the Keihintohoku line, which is one of the lines I used most frequently while I was in Tokyo.   The train system in Japan is fantastic, and I was able to get around the city very easily, with only a small amount of confusing lostness.


I only experienced true rush hour once or twice while I was in Japan-  my hours in the office were mostly night-time hours.  I think it’s fantastic that during rush hour, there are subway cars where men are not allowed.  Given how crowded the train can get, I can see why this would be more comfortable for women than a coed car.


Finally, after a very long travel day, I reached Kanda station.  Kanda was my home base for the entire five weeks I was in Japan, and the happy little dog on this store’s sign was always good to see when I got off the train.


I was in Japan during festival season.  There had been a festival on the street during the day before my arrival.  I missed that, but caught another one later in my trip. I’ll talk about that one in another post, because that’s even more pictures.  This is from the festival I missed- it was sitting on the sidewalk near my hotel, waiting to be transported back to wherever they keep it when it isn’t festival time.


Finally, I reached my hotel.  The Hotel Mystays is a chain throughout Japan, and they have great extended stay rooms.  The little green card with the penguin on it is a Suica card, which is good for most of the train and bus systems in Tokyo.   It can also be used in some convenience stores, which is very handy.


This is an electronics and department store in Akihabara.   It’s about eight stories tall, and was kind of amazing inside.  If ever I doubted I was in Japan, this building is a sure sign that I was really in Japan.


Speaking of signs that you’re in Japan, if you go to Shinjuku, you might run into Tokyo’s tourism ambassador, Godzilla.   (Gojira!)  Apparently, this is a life-sized Gojira head and claw on top of the Toho building.  I was pretty stoked to see him up there!


More signs that I was really in Japan:  Crowds like this!

On a side note, one thing that I love about crowd photos is that I always notice something fun in them a long time after the photo was taken.  For example, I didn’t notice that guy’s epic yawn until just a moment ago.


I took this picture just because I liked the Japanese poster for Inside Out.  But again, check out the random guy stink-eye in the bottom-right corner of the photo!


When I went to the Edo-Tokyo Museum, which I’ll talk about in yet another post, I walked right past this fantastic bike rack set-up.  I’ve never seen one set at an upward angle like this, and I thought it was a pretty genius use of space.


I also was unfamiliar with the concept of a “Sumimasen” button.  Sumimasen is what you would say to get someone’s attention or to pass by someone politely.  It translates to “excuse me.”  In many restaurants, there’s a button like this which is used to signal to the wait staff that you would like to place your order or pay the check.  This photo was taken in a Denny’s restaurant (to be seen in another post, naturally) and it was my very first exposure to the button.  Once again, this is a brilliant concept that I’d like to see used in American restaurants, where you sometimes need a signal flare to get the wait staff’s attention.


Apropos of nothing, this building just makes me bust out in Charlie Brown jokes.  After all, it’s a Great Pumpkin Charlie Brown!

This was seen during my train ride out of Tokyo in the third weekend.  Naturally, I’ll be talking about the rest of those trips in other posts.  Are you beginning to sense a pattern here?



Something that never stopped being funny to me-  American celebrities doing random advertisements in Japan.  Here’s Tommy Lee Jones and his very black coffee drink.


Another thing that was very commonly seen in Japan-  giant animated creatures on buildings to denote what sort of establishment they were.  This giant moving crab was obviously fronting a toy store, right?

Kidding, kidding.  I know it’s a seafood restaurant.


This is the San Ai building in Ginza.  I went out to Ginza to photograph this building because my research about the area had brought me to the conclusion that it was a very popular landmark and many people go there to photograph it.

When I told Amelie, she thought it was pretty funny that the only reason I wanted to go to Ginza to photograph this building was that other people had done so, and that it’s supposed to be famous.

In hindsight, she was absolutely right.  It took me forty minutes to find this building, and it really wasn’t worth the schlep.


This is what the street running alongside Kanda station looks like at night.  One of the lessons it took me a few days to learn was to always look up-  Tokyo is a very crowded city, and there are often businesses and restaurants on the upper floors of a building.


Another Japan custom that was kind of interesting-  in some restaurants, you do take off your shoes.  Often, they have little shoe-locker cabinets to put your shoes in before you go further.


There are shrines and temples all over the city.  This one was about a block away from the hotel.  I didn’t stay here for long, but I’ve got lots of pictures of other shrines.  (For another post, of course.)


One of my favorite things about Tokyo is the way that the temples and shrines are nestled in the middle of modern skyscrapers and city life.  They just blend into one another in places.  I think that’s kind of fascinating.


This post contained 26 out of 489 photos, so there’s only 463 remaining to go in future Japan posts!

Have you ever been to Tokyo?  How did you like the train system?