This trip was our customary spring Florida excursion. Besides visiting my parents,
Michael and I also visited one tourist railroad while in Florida. Our transportation this
year was AMTRAK's AUTO TRAIN.
Thursday, March 28, 2002
Driving to AUTO TRAIN
Thursday was a very busy morning. I had to pick up Michael from his caretaker,
finish my necessary last-minute packing, and get on the road. When we finally left
the house at 9:40 AM, I had my usual sinking feeling that I had forgotten something.
Luckily, nothing major was left behind. And yes, Michael was accounted for in the
back of my car. :)
I took mostly the "conventional" route down to Lorton: I-195 out of Howell, the
New Jersey Turnpike,
Delaware Memorial Bridge,
Delaware Turnpike (I-95),
JFK Memorial Highway & Fort
McHenry Tunnel (I-95) in Maryland, and I-95 to the Capital Beltway. I
decided to cut across Washington, DC to save some mileage, and used the southern end
of the Baltimore-Washington Parkway, the Kenilworth Avenue Expressway, and the
Southeast Expressway (all known as either MD 295 or I-295) to where it again meets the
Capital Beltway southeast of Washington. That is just before the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, which brings I-95/495 and
the Beltway into Virginia.
Except for a lunch stop at the Maryland House on the JFK Memorial Highway, we sailed
nonstop all the way to the junction of I-295 and the Beltway southeast of Washington,
thanks to use of EZ-Pass on all of the toll
facilities in New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. The latter actually has its own electronic toll
called M-Tag but it offers reciprocal
acceptance of EZ-Pass.
From that point however, all hell broke loose. The jam began on the Beltway entrance
ramp from I-295, and continued over the Woodrow Wilson Bridge and well through
Alexandria. It did not look good. We had about an hour to get to the AUTO TRAIN by the
suggested 2 PM arrival time (although they take autos, not larger vehicles, until 3 PM), but I
knew we were still quite a distance from the Springfield Interchange, that
perpetual bottleneck and probable cause for this bumper-to-bumper situation.
Being impatient and adventurous, I decided to bail. Already one exit past U.S. 1, I got off
and then re-entered the Beltway going east towards Maryland. Back at U.S. 1, I would take this
road down to Lorton. Well there are plenty of traffic lights, but we were moving. Roughly ten miles
later we entered Lorton, and then found the same Route 642 that leads to AUTO TRAIN. There were no
trailblazer signs evident on U.S. 1; I guess it is assumed all AUTO TRAIN customers will approach the
station from I-95. But I found my way, and we got to the terminal at about 1:40 PM.
Check-in & Boarding
Upon arrival, we were greeted at a small booth, where our tickets were checked against
some master list. A number was assigned to my car for loading and identification
purposes after arrival. That same number was written in my ticket folder. We were then
told to proceed to the overhang where we would leave the car.
I was told to leave my drivers side window rolled down, and the key in the ignition. The
window is a good idea, as it prevents the key from accidentally being locked into the car. At this
point the car is also inspected for any nicks or dents that I could later claim was their fault.
Other than a missing hubcap and the 179,000 miles on it, my 1994 Saturn is in pretty good
shape. From outside we were told to go into the terminal to check-in.
Inside, we were waited on almost immedidately. We found out that a lot of people had
called the terminal from their cell phones as they were stuck in traffic on the Beltway. I asked
if the train might be held if a lot of people arrive late, and I was told that they would delay the
train no more than half an hour if a good number of reserved passengers have not yet checked in
by the deadlines. All tickets were lifted, and we were given a boarding pass instead, and seat
assignments. We would be in Coach 5301, seats 51 & 52. I had to show picture ID here as well.
We also chose our dinner seating. I always choose the first one, for fear they might run out of
the limited selections on the menu that I like. Because there were not many coach passengers on
this particular run, there were just two seatings: 5:30 and 7:30, so I chose 5:30. We would be in
Diner "A". Sleeper passengers were given a choice of 5, 7, or 9 PM for dinner. We also found out
that the movie would be "Harry Potter".
We then had time to relax. It was a warm, almost Florida-like day in Virginia, so it was
very pleasant outside. Michael used the playground even though he has long outgrown it. My
playground was that long string of Superliner cars for which I had to record the numbers. I
decided that I would not be able to record the numbers of each auto carrier, since it is impossible
to get back that far either before, during, or after the trip. And the auto carriers are
put together and taken apart while passengers are aboard their section of the train, so I would
never even be able to see their correct order.
The consist I wrote down was as follows:
834 P-40 locomotive
128 P-42 locomotive
38054 Superliner II diner
34122 Superliner II coach
34130 Superliner II coach
34126 Superliner II coach
33100 Superliner I AUTO TRAIN
34125 Superliner II coach
34120 Superliner II coach
(We sat here)
38067 Superliner II diner
32101 Superliner II sleeper
32100 Superliner II sleeper
32500 Superliner II deluxe sleeper
38047 Superliner II diner
33101 Superliner I AUTO TRAIN
32503 Superliner II deluxe sleeper
"A. Philip Randolph"
32074 Superliner II sleeper
32084 Superliner II sleeper
32501 Superliner II deluxe sleeper
Plus 26 auto carriers
All passengers board the train at the same time. There is one general boarding
call announced to the entire terminal, both inside and outside. Ours came at about
2:45 PM. At that time, everyone goes to their assigned coaches or sleepers, checks
with the attendant outside (giving him or her the boarding passes) and gets aboard.
Around 2:50 PM, southbound Acela Regional Train 95
passed us by on the CSX mainline, headed for Newport News.
At roughly 3:15 PM, the attendants are told to lock up the doors. We're trapped
now; there's no turning back. At this time switching commences. Several rows of
auto carriers are put together behind the train, and then they are pulled onto an
adjacent track. The passenger section is then pulled up a bit while the auto carriers
are added to the rear.
Train #53(28), southbound AUTO TRAIN
The crew ran into some difficulty, however, that would slightly alter my carefully
obtained consist. The 834 engine developed cab signal difficulties, and it was
decided that it could not make the trip in the lead position. The order of the
engines had to be switched, so that the 128 would be in the lead. We were told
this process would take about 15-20 minutes; however we did not officially leave Lorton
until 4:57 PM, after the auto carriers were finally added to the rear. So already we
were starting out almost an hour in the hole.
Our dinner call came promptly at 5:30 PM, and Michael and I were off to the diner,
which luckily was one car behind ours. We were seated with a mother and young son (a
little younger than Michael) with whom we made a little bit of conversation. And she
made it quite evident she was wearing her wedding ring. Her husband was, in fact aboard
the train as well with another of their children, because she called him from her seat in
the diner, one cell phone to another. Ah but trust me, dining separately is the first
sign of marital trouble. I digress.
The dinner entrees were:
Lemon Peppered Cod
Grilled Vegetable Lasagna
(All of the above served with mixed vegetables.) The childrens' entree was Choo Choo
Chewies, which is chicken nuggets with macaroni & cheese. It is interesting to note
that the kids dinner has a larger portion of chicken than the Chicken Breast entree
for adults. The desert options:
Vanilla Ice Cream (with optional chocolate or fruit topping)
The only drinks available were:
I was unpleasantly surprised that soda is not offered as a beverage. Of course, one
can purchase it in the lounge car for $1.50.
On the way south in Virginia, we passed Train 90(27), the SILVER PALM (with its
spanking "new" Business Class coach) and Train 80(28), the CAROLINIAN. Both
were headed for New York.
6:32 PM found us finished with dinner. Michael decided to go and watch the end of
the first "Harry Potter" showing, then see the beginning of the second (7:30) showing --
this way he would be able to get to sleep earlier. I returned to our seats,
confident Michael was safe on his own in the lounge car. I was just in time to hear on
my scanner a CSX dispatcher telling our train to stop at a grade crossing in Ashland, VA
and to protect the crossing. Apparently there was a malfunctioning crossing arm. We
did come to a stop at 6:41 PM, even though a northbound freight had just passed the
grade crossing and reported it working fine. Our crew did as instructed, but instead of
finding a broken crossing gate, they reported seeing a dead rabbit. Hmm, perhaps a
fourth dinner entree on tomorrow's AUTO TRAIN? By 6:49 we were moving at speed
once again towards Richmond.
We made a brief stop at the Henrico County station that they call "Richmond", for
all of two minutes. Of course no passengers are handled anywhere but the terminal
stations. However during the two minutes we were there, Train 66(28), the
TWILIGHT SHORELINER bound for Boston made its appearance in the station. Our only
reason for stopping was to allow 66 to clear the track into the station.
About 15 minutes after leaving the Richmond station and crossing the James River,
we were told we would be stopping again for another malfunctioning grade crossing.
At 9 PM I went to retrieve Michael from the lounge car, since it was now his bedtime,
and he had already just passed the point where he had come into the movie's first
showing. We both got ready to go to sleep. Michael found some empty seats a few
rows back. The train was by no means fully booked, so there was plenty of room for many
who wished to spread out into another seat. I also took a sleeping pill, just in case
I would have any trouble falling asleep. I had to get my rest, as I had a lot of
driving ahead of me the next day.
The last thing I remember seeing was passing through Rocky Mount, NC. The
crew had already said their goodnights and shut off most of the lights in the coaches.
Once past Rocky Mount, my pill took effect. I slept very well, so well I did missed all
of South Carolina and Georgia, including the short scheduled maintenance stop the train
makes in Florence, SC, and the passing of the northbound AUTO TRAIN and SILVER METEOR
somewhere en route.
Friday, March 29, 2002
Train #53(28), southbound AUTO TRAIN (continued)
When I awoke, I had the usual pain associated with falling asleep in an awkward
position. I may have had two seats, but at a height of 6-1 I still have to bend in the
middle somewhere. Plus, I had absolutely no idea where we were. Daylight had come,
and I confirmed this by checking my watch and finding it was a little past 6 AM. Gosh
breakfast was already being served, and I was not there!
I soon figured out we were somewhere around the Georgia/Florida border, approaching
Jacksonville. This was confirmed as we blew past the station north of the city. But
then we slowed down. CSX had some slow orders for us through the yards and around the
mini-Horseshoe Curve all passenger trains take while passing north of downtown. We lost
another 10-15 minutes through here. Our trip seemed doomed from the start, and the
adage that a late train only gets later sure was true for us.
Breakfast was not by reservation, as I guess some people tend to skip it. We
were seated with two people that were part of a much larger family seated at adjacent
tables, so Michael and I really felt left out from all the cross conversation. The
breakfast, strictly continental, offered any one or more of the following:
Cold cereal & milk
Bagels & cream cheese
Let me say something about the lounge cars here. I had not taken the AUTO TRAIN in
several years. Several years ago they replaced the Sightseer Lounges with special
lounge cars that were rehabbed old diners cars and were specific only to AUTO TRAIN. The
difference is that instead of the long couch-like seating facing the windows and the
swivel chairs, you sit at a table as if you were dining. There windows are standard side
windows you would find in a dining car, so they lack the wrap-around effect of the Sightseer
Lounges that let you look up to the sky. For movies, there are four monitors, two facing
in each direction in each section of the lounge car's upper level. Downstairs is a
larger table with a seat around it, and another monitor for the movie showings. A separate
room downstairs, closed off from the rest of the car, is the train's smoking lounge, so that
the specially-equipped Superliner coaches that have smoking lounges downstairs are not
necessary on this train. Drinks are sold by an attendant who is stationed in the center of
the upper level (as opposed to the Sightseer Lounge where the attendant is downstairs), and
some complimentary mixed snack dishes are available (pretzels, corn chips, etc.). In my
opinion, I like the Sightseer Lounge cars better. However I can see AMTRAK's thinking in
that since the schedule of this train is the same every day, the Sightseer Lounges would not
live up to their potential because there is not much scenery to see since most of the trip
is in the dark.
That said, I really had no desire to sit in what they call the "social center" of the train
to pass the remaining few hours of the trip.
The rest of the trip went quickly and uneventful. As we approached Sanford passing over the
St. John's River, a final set of announcements told us the procedures to follow upon our arrival.
Unlike the newly-rebuilt Lorton terminal, the passenger section of the train still has to be
broken up at Sanford because the platform is not long enough. We only had to wait maybe 7-8
minutes after arrival before we were given the okay to detrain. We were roughly 1-1/4 hours
late, but most of that was incurred before we even got started from Lorton.
And that is where the fun just starts. Everyone proceeds to the waiting room, for the
arduous task of claiming the automobiles. Again there is no set order to how the cars will
come off the train, and there is no possible skill in timing one's arrival at the
origin station in order to be the first one to leave the destination station.
With the voice of a Bingo caller, somebody begins to call out the randomly assigned
numbers that were given to each automobile and its driver upon check-in. Although it is not a
standard practice, on this particular morning most of the SUV's were called first. We had to
wait about an hour before my car came off the train. It was close to 11 AM as we finally
departed the AUTO TRAIN terminal. We would have enough time to make a midday run of
a tourist train in Mt. Dora. I headed west on Florida 46 directly from the Sanford
AUTO TRAIN terminal to the quaint town of Mt. Dora.
Orlando & Mt. Dora Railway
Our non-AMTRAK Florida train activity for this year would be the Orlando & Mt. Dora Railway. There are
currently two distinct services offered. Their older, bread-and-butter run is a
one hour round trip excursion from Mt. Dora, around Lake Dora to the town of Tavares.
A newer service just started earlier this year is an all-day excursion between the
railroad's actual namesake places; one boards in Orlando in the morning, rides a very
slow 3 hours to Mt. Dora (by car it's about a one-hour trip), spends 2 hours in the
town, and then returns to Orlando about 5 PM. It was my intention to do both of these,
since they use different parts of the same railroad. We would do the shorter Tavares
run before heading to my parents place on the west coast of the state, and then later
in the week I would return, possibly on my own and take the longer run from Orlando.
Unfortunately, a personal catastrophe caused me to cancel my plans to take the Orlando-
Mt. Dora excursion. I hope I can do that one next year.
The Mt. Dora-Tavares trip used to be run with a steam engine and either open
coaches or closed, air-conditioned ones. With that equipment now moved to the Orlando
excursions, the shorter run is protected by what they call the "Doodlebug", a self-propelled
single car. The car back in 1928 actually was once a trolley in Philadelphia!
I had a little trouble finding the place, until I noticed the railroad tracks that run
along Lake Dora. I then just followed them on parallel streets until I found the station.
We parked in a bilevel garage (pretty impressive for a small town like Mt. Dora), and found
a small shop where we could get hot dogs and french fries before boarding the train. I was
glad I had the foresight to purchase our tickets before we ate, because our 12:40 PM trip was
later marked on a blackboard as "sold out". Since we had some considerable driving to do
later on, I did not wish to take a later trip.
Once aboard, our conductor provided us with a quite humorous and colorful synopsis of our
trip. We learned that the Mt. Dora station, which now houses a Chamber of Commerce office,
is of Atlantic Coast Line (ACL) heritage. The tourist railroad uses a trailer as its
ticket office and base of operations. West of the tracks is the Mt. Dora Hotel, which is
registered as a federal historic landmark. Beyond this is Boathouse Row. Across the road that
parallels the tracks out of town, there are everything from Victorian mansions to subdivisions.
Lake Dora is two miles wide and 7 miles long. It has access to the St. John's River, which
itself empties into the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville. Around the lake we could see samples
of most of Florida's native birds, such as osprey, anhinga, eagles, hawks, and herons. Once in
a while, alligators can be seen from the train. Meanwhile, on the other side of the
train, we were told that one of the nice houses we were seeing used to belong to Ira Lansky,
who was Al Capone's bookie. We got a glimpse of another lake on the right, Lake
Gertrude, which unlike Lake Dora, is landlocked.
Another old hotel existed on Old 441 until about 1990 before it was converted to office space.
Our conductor now pointed out some strip shopping centers on both sides of the tracks that
had fallen on bad times. Instead of retail stores, once now is home to Mt. Dora's social
hangout/Honkeytonk/Night Club/Beer Garden, called Desperado's. Other former department stores
are now a bingo hall and a billiards parlor. Around here we passed what appears to be the
railway company's "yard", some old railroad cars that are being restored for the future. One of
the coaches carries markings from the Valley Railroad in Essex, CT. The
conductor also said there is a requirement that every railroad must pass a junkyard somewhere
on its route, so he showed us Mt. Dora's obligatory junkyard.
Soon we crossed the border into Tavares, hometown to this conductor, hence his vast knowledge of
the area. There is a point where the train runs down the median of a street, much like some freight
and AMTRAK routes. After this, we curve to the west and join another track that comes in from the
north. This leads to Eustis. Mt. Dora, Tavares, and Eustis are collectively known as the
"Golden Triangle"; Mt. Dora is the commercial center, Tavares is the county seat of Lake County, but
much smaller, and Eustis is a working class town that sits on Lake Eustis. We were told that this
railroad plans to hopefully run some excursions along that other track into Eustis by this summer.
Just beyond the juction in Tavares, our ride was half over. We sat while our engineer changed ends.
The conductor told us to all stand up and flip our seats so we could face the other way. He also
collected our tickets at this point of the trip, saying that if we had not bought tickets we
would have the longest possible walk back to Mt. Dora.
On the way back we enjoyed the scenery, while the conductor spoke individually with
passengers who had any questions about the area. Before we knew it, an hour had passed and
we were back at the Mt. Dora station. This ride was truly interesting, and that was a reflection
on the intense love and knowledge of the area that our conductor possessed. I strongly
recommend that everyone take this short excursion if they are in Central Florida.