Auto-Train to Florida, February 2006 An Official Trip Report
February 2-3, 2006
This year's Auto-Train trip to Florida took place on Feb. 2-3, 2006. As in the past few years since we acquired a dog, I took the car full of stuff and my wife followed by air with the pooch two days later.
Departure from our home in Westchester County, NY, was scheduled for 8:00 but I didn't make it out of the driveway until 8:23. Looking at last year's report, departure was at 8:19 so I still had plenty of time. My route was NYS 9 to the Tappan Zee Bridge, thence I-287 to the Garden State Parkway which I followed to the junction with Route 1. I reached that location at 9:35 after 64.5 miles and had not encountered any serious traffic problems. After a brief gas stop on Route 1 I continued to the junction with I-95, passing PHL at 11:00 (131 miles) and making a brief stop at Newark, DE. The traffic was backed up between there and the Susquehanna River Bridge as two lanes were closed for repairs; this delay cost me at least 45 minutes. Continuing, I passed BAL at 1:22 (233 miles), WAS at 1:53 (268 miles) and reached the Auto-Train Terminal at Lorton at 2:20 (1:45) after a drive of 293 miles.
Upon checking in I learned that, as suspected, the 7pm dinner seating was full and the choices were 5pm or 9pm. I opted for the 5pm sitting and then went outside to photograph the train on the spring-like day. While walking forward I noted the front consist and once inside went through the sleeping car section to obtain that part of the consist. Since the car attendants were on the platform loading the train, during the walk through I performed the usual role of dispensing information as to dining and lounge car locations, etc.
The train consisted of locomotives 80 and 207 pulling a diner, a lounge car, 4 coaches, 3 sleepers, a diner, another lounge car, 3 more sleepers and a transition sleeper for the crew. All passenger-carrying cars are Superliner equipment. Two of the sleepers, "Palm Bay" and "Palm Harbor," have 10 deluxe bedrooms upstairs unlike the usual arrangement which has but 5 deluxe rooms on the upper level. While outside I also had photographed some of the new auto-carrying cars recently acquired by Amtrak for this service.
At check-in I had requested a seat toward the rear of the last coach on the train. I have found this to be a very quiet location since only the crew members pass between the coach and sleepers during the night. The agent gave me the very last seat which was fine. Actually there would have been no concern over noise as most of the passengers were retired types; the young couples with children don't come until a few weeks later. The train's interior had a neat appearance with a blanket and two pillows on the luggage rack over each pair of seats. An added feature this year is a "See Something? Say Something!" notice in each seat back pouch. This urges passengers to report anything "suspicious or unusual" which hopefully the riders won't deem to include photographers!
At 3pm the crew closed the doors and began assembling the train for the scheduled 4pm departure. The new Lorton terminal accommodates the entire passenger consist but the auto-carriers must be added to the rear. At 3:33 we pulled down so those cars could be added by the station switch engine. Next, a brake test was performed and we were underway by 3:48 (4:00). Just before we pulled on to one of the main tracks, Train #91, the Silver Star, rolled by en route to Miami via Tampa and running about 10 minutes late.
Shortly before departure it was time to relax with a bottle of wine so I headed for the lounge car. It's set up with lounge-type furniture at one end and dining car tables at the front end, which is adjacent to the diner. At dinnertime the full diner and half the lounge car are used to serve meals. But I digress-we pulled out and headed south while I enjoyed a good wine. Although the crew made informative and helpful announcements, I didn't hear the traditional announcement as to the number of coach and sleeping car passengers on board as well as the number of autos and motorcycles. At Sanford the station staff mentioned that about 350 autos were to be unloaded.
The crew had announced that meal sittings are exactly on time and sure enough, the call for dinner was made precisely at 5pm. The car is filled starting with the front end and since I was one of the first arrivals, I was seated right behind the locomotives. My table companions were Jim and Mary, a couple from Rochester, NY, heading to St. Lucie, FL. We began by emptying the carafe of white wine that was on the table and enjoyed two of them during the meal.
The menu choices were cod, pot roast, turkey, Salisbury steak and vegetarian lasagna. I selected the cod and my companions had the pot roast. Our waiter was the attendant from the first coach and I noticed that my car attendant also was working as a waiter. The Auto-Train has special work rules that allow that practice and it works as a practical matter since nobody gets on or off the train between origin and destination. The excellent meal was concluded by a large dish of vanilla ice cream with chocolate sauce. While in the diner and later in the evening, I heard many compliments from other passengers about the excellent meals. The only drawback, about which I heard no complaints, was the service on plastic type plates; regular china is used in the first class diner which also has a better wine selection.
North of Richmond we stopped and sat for 17 minutes. This was followed by some very slow running with freight trains all around us. Just before the Richmond station Amtrak #80, the Carolinian, passed and appeared to be about 3 hours late. The magnitude of our delay is illustrated by the fact that the run from Ashland to the Staples Mill Road "Richmond" station consumed 52 minutes instead of about 10 minutes.
While walking through the coaches I observed what appeared to me as a rather strange loading pattern. The first two coaches were nearly full, the third had a block of about 16 empty seats up front and the last coach in which I rode was about 2/3 full. Since there is no boarding at intermediate points, I would have expected the passengers to be more evenly distributed throughout the train. My earlier walk through the sleepers indicated them to be just about full.
Following dinner, I did some reading and writing and dropped off to sleep about 10:30 which is quite early for me but I was tired from the long drive and the wine also contributed its share. I slept lightly at times and recall a lot of crossover moves as we moved around and past freight trains. For the most part, however, we ran at track speed once past Richmond. I always enjoy whistling through small towns during the night with the engineer doing the driving.
I woke up with the 7am crew announcement that the train was passing Jacksonville and that the diners are open for a continental breakfast. Indeed, we were running past the Amtrak JAX station at that very moment. After passing the "big curve" at downtown JAX, I washed up downstairs and headed to the diner where I was seated with a couple from the Washington, DC area heading for "Disney" and a man from Philadelphia who owns a condo in Sunny Isles, in Miami-Dade County about two miles south of our place. We enjoyed some lively conversation as well as OJ, coffee, cereal, bagels, muffins, bananas, etc. As we were finishing, the waiter also brought each of us a coffee to go. Both at dinner and at breakfast, the service had been excellent. Yet at each meal I had been the only person at my table to leave a tip. I did notice money on some of the other tables so would estimate that about half the people leave something. On the way out I spotted two chefs sitting at tables and stopped to compliment them on the meals. I also mentioned that I had heard much praise from other passengers. Once they heard the compliments they owned up to being the Chef and Assistant Chef and thanked me.
The 7am announcement had mentioned that the train had lost about 50 minutes in the Richmond area last night and now was estimated to reach Sanford 1 to 1 « hours late, "providing nothing further happens." The only subsequent unusual occurrence was a stop north of Deland for a "safety inspection" as one of the on board alarms had been activated. During the 7 minutes we were at this location, #91, the Silver Star overtook our train. This was the same #91 that had passed shortly before yesterday's departure from Lorton and it was running on time.
Continuing south, our train reached the junction with the Auto-Train terminal trackage at 9:50 and the Sanford AT station itself at 9:53. The engines then pulled the head 5 cars forward and backed them on to an adjacent track for unloading and everyone was permitted to detrain at 10:04. It had been raining all night and was pouring at the time. The temperature in Sanford was 66°.
At this point I really "lucked out" as my car was the 4th of about 350 to be unloaded from the train and I drove out of the terminal at 10:24, first heading east to Mims via Route 46, thence south on I-95. For about 50 miles the drive on 95 was akin to traveling through a monsoon; nevertheless most drivers kept moving along at 70+mph. Luckily the sun emerged after Fort Pierce and South Florida was nothing but blue sky. Moreover, the temperature had changed from 66 at Sanford to 88 at Fort Lauderdale. I made a brief stop at the Fort Lauderdale station to pick up the current Tri-Rail timetable and reached our condo in Hallandale Beach at 3:46pm, after a 248 mile drive from Sanford.
The Auto-Train continues to be a very well run operation and is very popular since it saves about 800 miles of driving. I had enjoyed the trip.