Auto Train Revisited
February 3-4, 2005
Unlike last year when the Auto-Train was cancelled due to an ice storm in the Carolinas and two airlines would not let my wife fly with the dog because of the cold weather, this year we were able to make the annual southbound trip to Florida exactly as planned. I headed south on the Auto-Train on Thursday, February 3rd and she followed two days later.
With a fully loaded auto, I departed from home in Westchester County, NY, at 8:19 (8:00) on February 3rd. I made a 20 minute stop at the Chesapeake House along I-95 in Maryland [11:46 to 12:06] and reached the Lorton, VA Auto-Train Terminal at 1:45 (1:38), after a drive of 293 miles.
The Amtrak terminal was rather crowded as most of the passengers had arrived earlier. At check in there was a choice of 5pm or 9pm dinner sitting; since I had gone without lunch I opted for the 5pm dinner and that turned out to be a good choice. I would go coach this trip so could not call ahead from the road to reserve dinner as the sleeper passengers are able to do. Just a few minutes after check in I noticed that only the 9pm sitting now was open for both coach and sleeper guests.
The weather had been clear during most of the drive but a little sleet started while passing through DC. That turned to snow in Alexandria and the snow was coming down quite heavily in Lorton. Nevertheless I went outdoors to get a few photos of the train in the snow and begin jotting down the consist of the front half of the train. The train was opened for boarding about 2:40 and I made my way to my car, the 4th and last coach on the train. My seat was toward the rear of that car which was good as the lounge and diner were forward and no passengers would be passing through since the sleeper section was directly behind. I was about the only passenger who passed through that door and did so during the boarding process while the car attendants were downstairs on the platform. By so doing I was able to note the sleeper section's consist before departure time. A man from Brooklyn had been given the aisle seat next to me but just after departure he found a double seat in another car so both of us could spread out.
Several years ago Amtrak rebuilt its Lorton terminal so that the entire passenger car consist can be loaded on the same track. Our train consisted of Engines 41 and 19 pulling a diner, lounge car, 4 coaches, 3 sleepers, a diner, a lounge car, 3 more sleepers, a transition sleeper and 24 auto carrier cars. The train was 3/4 mile long and transported 388 passengers and 207 autos. Although a week before departure the computer had showed the coaches as sold out and only a very few sleeper rooms available, there were empty coach seats. The entire passenger section of the train is Superliner equipment.
At 3:30 we moved south to make room for the auto carriers to be switched on to the rear. A brake test followed and we headed south at 3:51 (4:00). Soon an enthusiastic service manager welcomed everyone on board and began his announcements about the train, the procedures and schedule, including the 8:30am expected arrival time at Sanford. While he was making the announcements a northbound VRE train passed, followed by the Tropicana Juice train. I then dozed off, not waking until 4:45. Since dinner would be at 5pm, I headed for the lounge car to get a Bloody Mary. Unfortunately, the attendant had to hunt for the vodka and the first call was made while he was doing that. No problem, he would bring the drink into the diner for me.
In years past Sightseer lounges had been used on the Auto Train. However several years ago dining cars were substituted. These cars have regular dining car seating at one end and lounge seating at the other end. When walking into the diner I noticed that several of the tables in the lounge car also were set up for dinner service and even more of them were used for breakfast the following morning. As usual, the dining car setting made a nice impression. My table companions were a couple from Passaic, NJ, heading to Pompano Beach and a lady from Stamford, CT, en route to Fort Pierce. Each of them had previously used the Auto Train and hated driving the entire way. The menu in the coach diner is not as elaborate as in the first class diner and the dinners were served on plastic type plates rather than china. The choices were pot roast, baked cod or a vegetarian item. I selected the cod which was quite tasty, and vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce for dessert. A carafe of white wine was on the table and this was refilled as necessary. I drank my share and then some.
While in the diner the train passed through Ashland, Va., and the Amtrak station outside of Richmond. Outside the snow was coming down and the scenery had the appearance of a winter wonderland. My companions seemed surprised that I had been "on the ground" to photograph at these locations. While walking through the lounge car on the way back from the diner, I spotted some chocolate chip cookies and picked two of them up. This proved to be a mistake since a crown came off one of my teeth as I was enjoying the cookie! Luckily my dentist back in NY referred me to a colleague in Hallandale Beach who did an excellent and painless job of rebuilding the tooth.
After dinner I returned to my seat to do some reading. When we slowed down to a crawl near Rocky Mount, NC, I turned on the scanner to learn we had caught up with a freight which the dispatcher promised to move to the other track soon. He did and we got back up to speed, passing the Rocky Mount station at 8:23. A quick trip to the lounge car later indicated that it was full with a loud bunch having a grand time. Most passengers were middle aged or older and all were enjoying themselves. I went back to my reading and, perhaps with some help from the wine, dropped off to sleep about 10:30.
The next thing I recall is waking up at 5 am to find us stopped in the middle of nowhere. It was pitch black outside and I had the feeling that we had been there for awhile. Dozing off, I awoke again at 5:30 to find that we still had not moved. Upon turning on the scanner I soon learned that we were stuck behind a disabled CSX freight train and there was no interlocking between us and it. The only way out would be to back up to whatever interlocking was north of our location but that is neither safe nor practical due to the length of the train so we would have to await the rescue of the freight train. I later learned we had been in South Carolina at MP 419, a long way from Sanford.
Breakfast was announced about 7am with an explanation and apology for the delay. My breakfast companions were the man who briefly had been seated next to me in the coach and a couple en route to Palm Beach. The man was bringing his son's auto from Brooklyn to Daytona Beach and would be returning the next day; he was destined to spend very little time in Florida. Breakfast was the usual OJ, bagels, muffins, cereal and coffee/tea, served by the excellent crew. There was no rush as we weren't going anywhere. Shortly after I entered the diner, two CSX locomotives passed us on the adjacent track, heading south. They later returned with about 15 piggyback cars and shortly thereafter, at 7:47am, we began moving south. Train 90, the Palmetto, soon passed at 8:02, having departed Savannah at 7am.
Some of the passengers started discussing the pros and cons of the lateness. One mentioned that we would get to see scenery that usually is traversed at night; another noted "there's nothing out there but pine trees." We passed Yemassee at 8:12, Savannah at 9:00 followed by much discussion as to where we would be re-crewed, as the operating crew who had boarded at Florence, SC, would outlaw about 10:30. There seemed to be much indecision with the CSX Dispatcher saying only that a van was heading north with a relief crew. The engineer soon became more insistent over this and said he needed to know where the crew van planned to meet the train. He finally made the decision to stop at the end of a double track section at Hortense, GA, near GA Highway 32 so the van could access the train. "I've only got 8 minutes left to work and don't want to block up your railroad."
So we sat in the middle of a forest at the south end of Hortense Siding from 10:28 until 11:50. Train 97, Silver Meteor, overtook us at 10:50, running over 4 hours late, but I caught up with it later in the day at Hollywood, FL! Train 97 had the private car Ohio River on the rear and it was dropped at Jacksonville where the Super Bowl was to be played two days later. Once the new crew boarded the dispatcher was duly notified but he had just routed a northbound unit coal train toward us so there was further delay until it passed. Total delay resulting from the need to re-crew at Hortense was 1 hour, 22 minutes.
The new conductor announced that he didn't expect any further delays en route to Sanford "but one never knows as this is the railroad." We passed the Folkston viewing platform at 12:26 where a bunch of photographers had the unusual bonus of catching the southbound Auto Train. Meanwhile the crew had announced that everyone would be served lunch and this was done with two sittings in a very efficient manner. The lunch was pot roast with rice and some "trimmings"-the crew scraped together what it could and it turned out good. Everyone complimented them on a job well done.
JAX came at 1:04, followed by Palatka, Deland and finally Sanford. We arrived outside the terminal at 3:36 and the train stopped at the platform at 3:42, slightly 24 hours after the departure from Lorton. My car was driven off at 4:23 and I immediately headed for a carwash to get rid of the dirt and salt before heading further south. I departed the car wash at 4:40 and used State Route 46 to Mims, thence I-95 to Hallandale where I arrived at 9:00pm after a 243 mile drive. The drive was fast until just north of West Palm Beach where traffic would periodically build up and the South Florida drivers began to appear, some heading through construction zones with shifting lanes at 80mph. And the Silver Meteor that had overtaken us many hours earlier was just entering the Hollywood station as I drove past on the highway.
Train #53 LOR-SFA Feb. 3-4, 2005:
Consist of Amtrak #53, Auto Train, LOR-SFA Feb. 3-4, 2005: