Auto Train Round Trip
July 1-9, 2005
Southbound, July 1, 2005
My family and I rode Amtrak's Auto Train to Florida at the beginning of July. We were headed to a family reunion and wanted to take our Jeep SUV, so this seemed like the best option. We all assembled together and arrived early at the Lorton Auto Train station on Friday, July 1. We got there a little after noon, and there were already 25 cars there! Well it was a good thing that we got there early. We had a bubble-top luggage container and were thinking we'd have to take it off the roof and store it inside the Jeep. However, Amtrak has a few "over-sized" auto carriers, so we were able to leave the bubble top on the Jeep. We had to sign waivers for damage, but that was a lot easier than taking it off and rearranging things inside!
We got our assigned number (#26) and waited inside the station. The station there is much nicer than the one in Florida. However on this day, the air-conditioning was not working properly so it was hot and stuffy. Since we were there so early we waited in the station, grabbed a sandwich from the little store and watched TV. I walked outside a few times to smoke and watch the train be put together. We waited three hours before we were allowed to board. We all rode in the coach section (car assignment #5313), seats 20-25. The coach was right next to the lounge, which made it convenient to grab a drink and come back to my seat. It also was somewhat annoying since people came through at night to go to the lounge.
At precisely 3:45 the air brake test was completed and we started our journey. The conductor came on and announced we had four coaches, two diners, two lounges, ten sleeping cars and 11 auto carriers. The train was powered by two GE P-42 Genesis locomotives (numbers 1 and 7).
All of us decided on the 7:00 dinner seating. However, since this is a train and you can walk around and actually meet people, we met a bunch of new people and rapidly became friends with them. We also met up with one of the staff members, Stanley, who proved to be one of the nicest and best people I've ever met. He also lives around the corner from me in Alexandria too! Without him on-board it wouldn't have been as good a trip as it was.
Anyway, at dinner my partner and me decided to eat with some of the new people we had met. We all had the baked cod. It was excellent. The main drawback is that in coach class they serve you on Styrofoam plates with plastic forks. Stanley bringing us a seemingly bottomless carafe of wine made up for this drawback, however.
We watched the movie in the lounge car with our new friends. As the evening progressed our little group grew into a large one. We basically took over the smoking lounge. My partner plugged his laptop computer into the outlet and we provided music for the evening. Collectively we managed to empty the lounge car of its entire beer supply too! Stanley came down and would smoke with us. We were enjoying ourselves and we loud, so I asked if our group was too rowdy. He said that we were tame compared to the college kids who take the train down to Spring Break. He said during Spring Break season the Auto Train takes on extra staff to keep things under control.
The actual journey south was uneventful at first. We made it past Fredericksburg, Richmond, Petersburg into North Carolina without any problems. However, when night fell, the train stopped several times. Often it was for a few moments, but other times we stopped for quite some time. The longest delay was sometime after 5:00 am. I awoke to use the restroom and felt we were not moving. It was pitch black outside, but I could see that we were across a grade crossing. There was a truck and a few cars waiting at the crossing gates with their drivers standing on the pavement. I guess we had been there for a long time. Eventually we started moving again, with the sun coming up. Some of the other passengers were commenting that the scenery was Jesup, GA, instead of Jacksonville. Sure enough, we passed through Jesup, as I could see the little station there. We were about four hours late. When we reached Jacksonville the train slammed on its brakes and we lurched to a stop in the middle of the yard. The jerking was so violent that the lounge attendant jumped over the counter and picked up the intercom phone to ask what happened. He said he was told that one of the brake hoses had broken open causing the emergency brakes to deploy. That took an additional 30 minutes to repair. Then we were on our way again. Breakfast was served and the movie rerun. When we arrived in Sanford, it was 12:30. We were four and half hours late. A little humor was needed, and ironically, it was supplied by the XM Satellite radio the train has. The song playing when we arrived was "Looks Like We Made It" by Shania Twain.
When we were waiting to detrain, the conductor came on the intercom and tried to explain why we were late. He said that Amtrak does not own the rails and CSX tries to give priority to the train, but sometimes it can't. He said that we also were carrying empty auto carriers, which had to be dropped in Savannah. However there was another passenger who had a scanner and he said that there was no stop in Savannah. He said that the defect detectors had tripped the brakes several times on the way south and the crew had to manually inspect the train. I am not sure who is right, but we were eager to get on our way. It took about 30 minutes for them to break the train into the two sections needed for detraining, and we waited about an hour to get the car. Everything was as we left it, and we quickly got on the road for the Florida Panhandle.
Overall experience: B+
Pros: Wonderful staff, good traveling companions, good selection of snacks/beverages
Cons: Little communication from staff of why we were late. What explanations were given, were not consistent. Different staff had different reasons and no one seemed to know what was going on.
Northbound, July 9, 2005
The family reunion was great! It was one of the best and most relaxing experiences ever. We left the Panhandle as Hurricane Dennis was bearing down. The winds were already strong when we left, and rain squalls were hitting us for about an hour afterward. We drove east, basically around the storm and arrived at Sanford by noon. Again, it pays to get there early. We were given #38 and were put in the line for the over-sized auto carrier. We patiently waited for the departure time. The Sanford station is very small and very old. I was told by a regular Auto Train rider that it's a relic from the original Auto Train Corporation of the 1970s. There is a sign outside of the station showing an artist's rendering of the future station Amtrak is planning for Sanford, but there was no scheduled completion date for it. If finished, it will resemble the one in Lorton.
Again we selected the 7:00 dinner seating and were assigned coach #5301, seats 1 through 5. These seats were at the very front of the car, facing the door to the sleepers. I figured that was good since it would prevent people from coming through and disturbing sleep. I was wrong, as I will note later. We boarded and waited for them to attach the train together. We departed about 30 minutes late due to someone losing his or her car keys. The person's car sat out on the driveway until he or she could be located. After that was resolved we departed at 4:30. Our train consisted of two GE P-42 locomotives (#25 and #38), two diners, two lounges, four coaches, ten sleepers and 16 auto carriers. The conductor reported that all seats and berths were purchased and we were carrying 404 passengers, 117 cars and SUVs and one motorcycle. Our northbound train was using what looked like brand-new auto carriers. They were silver and gold colored with Amtrak's new logo painted on their sides.
Interestingly though, while we were waiting to depart, the southbound Silver Meteor arrived at the other Sanford station. A few minutes later, it backed out of the station. The Amtrak switcher then moved out onto the main line. The train was broken and the café car was removed. The train was then reassembled and it continued southward. The switcher brought the café car into the coach yard at Sanford. My guess was that something was wrong with it, since it seems weird to take that car out of service in Sanford.
This time we did not find as many people to talk to as before. Some people from the southbound group were on the train but we didn't really reconnect. This trip was somewhat subdued. I was tired and decided to sleep. We made our way through Jacksonville but stopped somewhere north of the city for about 20 minutes. This time, a very informative conductor told us that the CSX defect detectors had reported a problem with the wheels and the crew needed to do a manual inspection. This event happened three times on our way northward. It would happen again in the middle of the night in North Carolina and again south of Richmond. While annoying, I understand that safety is paramount. I am amazed that with technology today, some better system doesn't exist to identify specific problems, rather than a general "defect" which requires time-consuming manual inspections to discover. Just for the record, the crew reported that was nothing wrong with the train.
The northbound run had a different crew. We were told there are actually three crews who man the trains. The northbound crew was professional except for one person. She was the lounge attendant, who was uncooperative and rude. She told us that she was unable to process credit cards at the bar and thus it was cash only. However, we ran into the same lounge attendant we had on the southbound trip and he told us that she was just lazy and didn't want to use the credit card machine. Amtrak lost out on us, since I spent $175 on the way down! As a moneymaker for the railroad, having the food and beverage service open is crucial. Since the attendant didn't want to take credit cards, not many people were buying things.
As I stated before, we rode in coach. At the time this seemed to be cost effective. I have no problem in sleeping upright in a seat. Other people have difficulty doing this. Also, it is very disturbing to have the doors open between coaches in the middle of the night. I figured that since we were right behind the sleepers, no one would come through the door. However, several sleeper passengers would come through in the middle of the night on their way to either the restrooms or the lounge. The woosh of air and the noise of the coaches rocking and rolling is enough to wake the dead! In addition, many curious coach passengers would walk through to the sleepers, presumably to check them out. Everyone did this despite a posted sign saying the sleepers were off-limits. So I didn't get to sleep very much on the way north. My partner can't sleep upright, so he stretched out on the floor sticking his legs under the seats. Had we been located mid-coach, the noise wouldn't have been a problem.
The next morning we awoke to the train stopped near Petersburg in the middle of a soybean field. Once again the defect detectors went off and the train had to stop. I made my way back to the diner for breakfast and sat with a nice couple from Massachusetts who were in the process of moving to Florida. They were returning home to sell their house and pack up for the move. The train started moving again, and we ate as we went through Petersburg and then into the Richmond area. When we got to Richmond's Staples Mill Road station the train stopped yet again. Next to us on the platform was an Acela Regional. Our train stopped there for about 30 to 45 minutes before resuming our northward journey. From Richmond to Lorton things were smooth. We arrived in Lorton at 10:30, just over two and half hours late. We waited for about an hour to get our car. We all hopped in and headed home.
If I were to take the Auto Train again, I would book a sleeper. The privacy it would provide, not to mention the better chance of sleeping, are more alluring than the cheaper price of coach.
Overall experience: B-
Pros: Good communication from crew
Cons: One rude crew member; coach seats are not the place to be if you want a good night's rest.