Florida Trip 2007
March 31-April 10, 2007
Chapter 0: Introduction
This trip was our almost annual Amtrak Florida trip. To shake things up, I decided that Michael and I would travel on the Auto Train this year. We seem to be on a five-year cycle with Auto Train, having also taken it in 1997 and 2002. It would represent a break for us from the conventional Silver Service trains.
This year we had an eleven day period to work with. I decided to use the first of those days to drive to Virginia and stay there, to lessen the pressure of driving through traffic the day of our Auto Train departure. Back in 1997, we hit a monumental traffic jam in Alexandria that could have caused us to miss the train. We would avoid that possibility this time by staying in the area the night before.
Unlike last year's Miami run, I did not plan to take any side trips this time. I wanted to save my money for the upcoming California trip in July as part of the OTOL Northern California RailFest 2007.
Chapter 1: Preparation
With the plans solidifying as early as January, I set forth to make our reservations. Amtrak's fares, like all other travel fares, are going to be higher during busy holiday periods. Since I wanted to go by sleeper in both directions and we would have the surcharge for the car, that put the total price out of financial reach. I therefore checked into using some of my Amtrak Guest Rewards (AGR) points for one direction of travel. I found out that our return trip would take place during a holiday blackout period when no points can be redeemed. However, our southbound trip would occur before that blackout period, so I would be able to use AGR points for that trip.
The southbound tickets were ordered by phone and received by mail in mid-February. I made the northbound reservation online in January, but I did not pick them up until sometime in March, when I happened to be in New York City and could visit an Amtrak agent.
A reservation was made at a hotel in Springfield, VA, not far from the Lorton Auto Train terminal. We would have no more than a few miles of driving to do on Sunday to get to the terminal on time.
With the tickets in hand and a little extra expense to ensure that my car was roadworthy for more travel than I normally put it through, we were all ready to depart on March 31st. I also reserved space on the Cape May Ferry (more about that in the next chapter) for that day.
Chapter 2: Saturday, March 31, 2007
Saturday was our car travel day. Since we had no train to catch, we could drive at our leisure. If we did hit any traffic in the Washington, DC area, it would not be a grave concern.
Chapter 2.1: Driving to Virginia
Being a railfan, I don't like to drive on I-95 if I don't have to, finding it counter-productive and too close to Amtrak's Northeast Corridor. (Actually I don't like to drive, period... but that's another story!) I don't want to be the one sitting in traffic watching a train go by at over 100 mph. Instead, I decided we would take the Garden State Parkway to Cape May, NJ. From there, we would take the Cape May-Lewes Ferry to Delaware, and then drive across the Delmarva Peninsula on Route 404, and then US 50 across the Bay Bridge, through Annapolis, and into the Washington, DC area. That would then leave only a small segment of driving on I-95 (mostly on the Capital Beltway) to get to our stop for the night in Springfield.
We did have one time constraint today, that being my 2:30 PM reservation on the Cape May-Lewes Ferry. Leaving home at 10:30 AM for what should be a two-hour trip gave us plenty of leeway and some time to stop for lunch.
We started out on old reliable US 9, headed south to Toms River. From there, we got on the Garden State Parkway. I figured we would be home free from here. I was wrong. The traffic jam I feared in Virginia happened in New Jersey, only 20 minutes into our trip. Between Toms River and the Atlantic City area, there are only two routes to take, either the Parkway or US 9. The latter is quite narrow, and even in the best of circumstances, slow and bumpy. I decided to bail at Exit 80 and take Route 9. Unfortunately, so did many other people. We crawled through South Toms River, Beachwood, Bayville, and other small towns.
Finally, in Forked River, I'd had enough. I took a road back to the Parkway, hoping I would be entering beyond whatever problem had been causing the tie-up. Thankfully, I had made a good move. We entered at milepost 74, which meant that in the past hour we had only gone six miles! I was therefore also happy we had left home when we did.
The rest of our southbound trip in New Jersey was uneventful. I figured on lunch before reaching the ferry terminal, so we got off in Rio Grande at the Wildwood interchange, and found a Subway restaurant. After lunch, it was another 25 minutes of driving before we reached the ferry terminal. Where the Parkway ends, one must drive on NJ 109 and US 9 to get to the ferry.
Despite the earlier traffic problems, we arrived at the Cape May-Lewes Ferry at 1:10 PM, with one hour 20 minutes to go before our departure. We were the fifth car on line for this trip. We locked up the car and went into the terminal to stretch our legs, browse the gift shop, and otherwise kill time.
The inbound trip of our ferry arrived a little late, so I knew we would not be departing right at 2:30. Nevertheless, at about 2:20 an announcement was made for all drivers to return to their vehicles. We actually did depart only five minutes late.
* (We were here)MV Delaware *
It was a smooth sailing. The water was calm and the weather was sunny but a bit cool. We passed the other vessel in service, the MV Cape Henlopen, at 3:20.
We arrived at the dock in Lewes at 3:52, twelve minutes late. By the time we were allowed to drive off the boat and be on our way, it was 4:00.
Now we continued on US 9 through Delaware. At some point the road also picks up DE 404, which is the actual road to follow for the Bay Bridge. After passing through a few towns in Delaware, the road becomes MD 404, and continues through Maryland. One thing I learned is that Maryland has a law that you must keep your headlights on while driving on any two-lane road with oncoming traffic. There are plenty of signs reminding drivers of this.
Eventually 404 ends at US 50 in Wye Mills, MD. It is not far to drive from there west on US 50 until it meets US 301 and becomes a freeway for the remainder of the trip to Washington, DC. This limited access road includes the William Preston Lane, Jr. Memorial Bay Bridge, the only road crossing of the Chesapeake Bay in this area. Signs on our route as far back as Lewes, DE showed mileage to this bridge. We crossed it at roughly 5:30 PM.
Now we were hungry for dinner. I figured that Annapolis would be a good place to stop. On past trips we had gone to a mall known as Westfield Shoppingtown Annapolis and eaten in their food court. I found it again easily, but was dismayed by the heavy construction in the area. The mall is undergoing a major expansion to its retail space and parking lots. The parking space I eventually found was pretty far from the food court, but it gave us the opportunity to take a long walk and thus stretch our legs after the long drive.
Once at the food court, we both had a craving for Japanese food, and ended up at Hibachi San. We spent a total of one hour at the mall before we continued our westward journey.
It turns out we had only another 45 minutes of driving to do. We got back on US 50 and drove towards Washington, DC. We made use of the HOV-2 lane, which is enforced 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
In the New Carrollton area, we switched to the Capital Beltway, I-95. We drove around the southeastern portion of the Washington area. There was construction near the Woodrow Wilson Bridge, but on a Saturday evening there was not much impact to traffic. At the bridge, we entered our fourth and final state for today's trip, Virginia. It was not long before we approached the Springfield Mixing Bowl. Greatly improved but not quite complete, we had to negotiate a complicated off ramp since our exit for the hotel is part of the mess.
We arrived at our hotel, the Hampton Inn, at 7:30 PM. This hotel is located right across a side street from a much larger Hilton, and it shares a parking lot and courtesy van with a Comfort Inn. Together these hotels are located right across a major street from Springfield Mall.
Having eaten in Annapolis, we had no need to go over to the mall. Our travels were over for the day.
Chapter 3: Sunday, April 1, 2007
Sunday would feature our Auto Train departure. Since we were already in the area, we had time to go into Washington.
Chapter 3.1: Sunday morning
We had breakfast at our hotel, and then checked out. We drove a short distance (technically just clockwise around the Springfield Mall) until we came to the Franconia-Springfield Metro station. Being a weekend, parking in the multilevel garage was plentiful and free.
Our first train of the day was a Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) Blue Line train.
Chapter 3.2: WMATA Metro Blue Line, Franconia-Springfield to Ronald Reagan National Airport
Our first destination would be Ronald Reagan National Airport. My goal here was to research the available restaurants for my ever growing online guide for railfans. We spent about 45 minutes here before continuing onward to our next stop.
Chapter 3.3: WMATA Metro Yellow Line, Ronald Reagan National Airport to Gallery Place
Next, it was getting close to an early lunchtime, so we would go to Union Station next and do our business there. This would involve two trains no matter how we did it, so I elected the shorter route, Yellow and then Red.
This was Cherry Blossom season, so a lot of the tourist population in the area was here to see the trees. We saw enough of them from the Yellow Line at the Washington end of the bridge.
At Gallery Place we got off the Yellow Line and transferred to the Red Line. We had about a three minute wait once on the Red Line platform.
Chapter 3.4: WMATA Metro Red Line, Gallery Place to Union Station
Once we were aboard our train, it only took a couple of minutes to get to Union Station. Then it was up the escalators and into the station itself.
Chapter 3.5: At Washington Union Station
At Washington Union Station, the goals were to have lunch, and also pick up the new Amtrak timetable. Michael wanted barbecued chicken from King BBQ in the station's lower level food court, while I opted for Sbarro. I took mine to go, so I could join Michael downstairs in the food court.
After lunch, we headed back to the Metro. We had one more stop to make before going back to our car in Springfield.
Chapter 3.6: WMATA Metro Red Line, Union Station to Metro Center
After another trip of only several minutes, we were at Metro Center. Instead of changing trains there, we went up to the street.
Chapter 3.7: The wrong mall
The goal again here was to do a service for you, dear reader. I wanted to check out the restaurants at a shopping mall known as The Shops at National Place. This mall does not have its own website, so I wanted to visit it in person to obtain the information I needed. However, I misread the neighborhood map in the station, and we ended up walking south instead of west.
We walked two blocks and then crossed Pennsylvania Avenue. Ironically we happened on the International Trade Center (ITC, also known as the Ronald Reagan Building). Although this mall opens late on Sundays, they had a sign outside listing all of its eateries. I therefore did not come away empty from our Metro Center stop. The ITC is actually closer to the Federal Triangle Metro station.
We could have deviated and gone to the first place I had intended to visit, but time was starting to get short on us. I had wanted to be back at the car at roughly 1:00 PM, and we still had one more Metro ride ahead of us. There will be other Washington visits to accomplish that. Back to the Metro!
Chapter 3.8: WMATA Metro Blue Line, Metro Center to Franconia-Springfield
We needed to take a Blue Line train for a one-seat ride back to Franconia-Springfield. Unfortunately we had just missed one, so we had to wait about ten minutes, during which time an Orange Line train towards Vienna came and went on the same track.
We ended up getting back to my car at about 1:15 PM. This was a little later than I intended, but I figured we had a very short drive to Lorton. Little did I know that the very thing I wanted to avoid by getting to the area the day before would still haunt us.
Chapter 3.9: The short, but long, trip to Lorton
Even though we were just south of the last known choke point, the Springfield Mixing Bowl, I noticed a traffic jam as we approached the entrance to I-95. I felt that getting onto the freeway would be suicide. Instead, I remained on the road parallel to the freeway, figuring we would just find out way to the Auto Train station via local streets.
We got a little lost though, as the road began to curve further west of I-95. I made a U-turn and found a road that crosses over to the east side of the freeway, the same side as the station. We soon came upon a road called "Lorton Station Road." While it would appear that we had now found things a little too easily, the name "Lorton Station" represents a planned housing and retail community that was built around the Lorton Virginia Railway Express station about a mile north of Auto Train.
Eventually we came out to Lorton Road, and only had to go a few blocks to the Auto Train terminal. What would have been a 5-10 minute ride on I-95 took us half an hour, but we had totally avoided the traffic nightmare on the freeway. It was 1:45 PM, and we were among many passengers arriving at this time for today's Auto Train departure.
Chapter 3.10: Lorton Auto Train terminal
About five minutes after arrival, we got to the booth where tickets are inspected. At that time, the Amtrak ticket for my vehicle was lifted, and we were given an Auto Train-specific ticket folder for the two passenger tickets. We were then directed to pull up underneath the canopy next to the terminal building. We would unload the items needed on the train there, and the car would be taken by Auto Train personnel and loaded onto the train.
Inside the terminal, we checked in at the desk. We were offered three dinner seatings, at 5:00, 7:00, or 9:00. As usual, we chose the earliest one. They gave us coupons to be turned in for admittance to that seating. We were told that the onboard movie would be "Accepted".
We found seats in the terminal, and then figured upon about a half-hour wait, as loading normally begins at 2:30 PM. I left Michael and went to check out our consist. The two engines and the entire passenger portion of the train were on a single track. There were also two rows of six auto racks in the yard. I erroneously figured that our train would contain twelve auto racks. (What I didn't realize was that a lot of people had arrived before we had, and thus many auto racks had already been fully loaded and moved to another track on the other side of the passenger section.)
I walked the length of the passenger section, beginning with the engines and working my way back to the last sleeping car, a Transition sleeper used by the crew. I also recorded the numbers from the six auto racks that I could see. To get the other six, which were sitting parallel to the first set, I figured I could walk over into the parking lot and get them from the other side.
I walked through the terminal building and across into the parking lot, and then north alongside the auto racks. I started recording those numbers too. However, after I did the last one, a golf cart approached me with two employees aboard. One of them asked me if he could help me, and I smiled and told him "no," that I was fine. Now as I walked back towards the terminal with my scanner on, I found out that apparently my good nature was not contagious. I heard him speaking to another person that he had observed a guy in a black jacket near the auto carriers, writing something down. That "guy in a black jacket" was yours truly. As I got closer to the building once more, some other official looking guy came towards me and told me that I had to go wait inside. Mind you, I had no camera on me, just a writing pad and pen.
Having returned to the terminal, I sat down and took my turn watching our bags while Michael checked out the Dig-E-Player to see if it would be worthwhile for us to rent one for our trip. He determined, and I concurred, that the rental price was too high, and that we would not be interested in watching enough of the movies loaded into it to justify the expense.
There came an announcement that the general boarding would not take place at 2:30, but rather 3:00. I thought this was strange, since the train had not been delayed that morning arriving from the south, our passenger count was high due to the holiday period, and if anything, we should board sooner. I became worried that already our train was going to be delayed right out of the box.
As promised at exactly 3 PM, the cattle call began. Everyone was told to board. One might expect that Auto Train could do this a little more systematically, perhaps by car number or class.
Chapter 3.11: Amtrak Auto Train, Train 53(1), Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL
We went to our assigned sleeper, the 42 car. Outside we met our attendant, Woody. He told us how to get to our roomette and said he would be by later to chat with us.
Woody's directions were adequate. I found Room 6 right where I expected it to be, between 4 and 8 and across from 5. After we had settled in and all passengers had boarded, Woody came onto the public address system for our car and introduced himself again. He said that there was a wine and cheese reception in the lounge car, and that he was coming around to each room. We heard him go through his spiel at each room, so by the time he got to us we knew what he was going to say.
He mentioned the wine and cheese reception again, and went into a little detail about what the evening's movie was about. Movie showings would be at 7:15 and 9:15. Woody also asked us when we would want our beds made, and I told him approximately 8:30, figuring we would be about ready to come back from the movie around then.
After Woody had finished with us, we took a walk to the lounge car to check it out. I don't drink wine, and Michael can't. The cheese was already gone, but there were a few snacks remaining such as pretzels.
We then heard the general announcement from our "Operations Supervisor," Sharon. I assume that this position is a hybrid of the former Chief of On Board Services and Lead Dining Car Attendant. Sharon explained the whole operation, and also gave us the specific numbers for our trip: Our train had a total of 42 cars, of which 15 were passenger cars, one crew car, and 26 auto carriers. We had two locomotives. There were 440 people aboard the train, including 411 passengers, two conductors, two engineers, and 23 other on board personnel. Our train was carrying 140 vehicles, namely 94 cars, 45 vans & SUV's, and one motorcycle.
It was from this announcement that I realized that I had not even recorded half of the auto carriers, and it would have been impossible to do so. The incident back in Lorton with the suspicious writing pad was therefore unnecessary.
The consist of Amtrak Train 53(1) was:
* (We were here)166 P-42 locomotive 172 P-42 locomotive 38041 Superliner II Diner 38052 Superliner II Diner 33103 Superliner I Auto Train Lounge 34131 Superliner II Coach 34128 Superliner II Coach 34123 Superliner II Coach 34118 Superliner II Coach 32105 Superliner II Sleeper "Oregon" 32116 Superliner II Sleeper "West Virginia" * 32502 Superliner II Deluxe Sleeper "W. Graham Claytor" 38051 Superliner II Diner 33100 Superliner I Auto Train Lounge 32504 Superliner II Deluxe Sleeper "Palm Harbor" 32101 Superliner II Sleeper "North Carolina" 32080 Superliner II Sleeper "Idaho" 39001 Superliner II Transition Dorm Plus 26 Auto Carriers
Despite the late boarding call, our train left Lorton right on time at 4:00. That time is what I heard the crew say on the radio, but the exact time is in dispute as Amtrak reported it to be 3:58. We didn't exactly highball our way out of Lorton, though. There was construction taking place near the Quantico Bridge, and although there was no actual activity going on this Sunday afternoon, we had slow orders through the area. It took us half an hour to get to the Quantico Bridge, and we moved slowly over the older span.
It was 4:45 PM when we finally got up to normal track speed. Waiting to go through the same area northbound on the one lone available track was the Tropicana Orange Juice train.
We were called to the dining car at exactly 5:00 PM. We brought our coupons and turned them in to the person who seated us. We were seated across from the usual retired elderly couple who asks us mundane questions about Disney World and the purpose of our trip until they realize we are trying to ignore them.
As soon as we were seated, wine was offered to the couple across from us, and me. I declined. At several times throughout our meal, when each staff member noticed my empty wine glass it was assumed that somebody forgot to give me wine. I declined again, each time.
On the menu was a choice of New York Strip Steak, Seared Salmon, Roast Chicken, Chicken Lasagna, or Vegetable Lasagna. For kids they had one choice called Choo Choo Chewies, consisting of chicken fingers and macaroni & cheese. For desert, one could choose from vanilla ice cream, sugar-free Jell-o, Key Lime Pie, and New York Style Cheesecake.
Everyone at the table chose the steak. Our orders were taken at 5:08, including our desert choices. Nine minutes later, they brought out our beverages, which for everyone was soda. The food came at 5:24. We had no complaints about our portions or how they were cooked.
Michael and I were finished 12 minutes later. Our dishes were removed after another four minutes. At 5:49, our deserts were delivered. We were done a few minutes later. At 6 PM, we left the diner. The whole process had taken exactly one hour. When I left the table, my wine glass was as empty as it was when I had arrived...much to the chagrin of the waitress who had kept on trying.
As we returned to our roomette, walking was easy because we had made a brief stop at the Richmond, VA Amtrak station. We then relaxed for a bit while we digested our dinner.
We decided to pass the time by going to see "Accepted" at 7:15. I had never seen it, nor had I even heard of it before. Apparently either nobody else was interested in seeing it, or they had seen it and figured it was not worth going through it again. Michael and I were the only ones to make it from start to finish; others only saw a part of it and went to more interesting things.
Not long after the movie began, I noticed we went into a pocket for a few minutes for a slow rolling meet with a freight train. Then at 7:35 we passed through downtown Rocky Mount, NC.
When the movie was mercifully over at 8:45, Michael and I walked back through the dining car, where the crew was busy cleaning up after the 7:00 seating and preparing for the last one.
Woody had been busy so our room was not made up for sleeping yet when we returned. At 9:10, we got a hold of him. Impressively he did the whole operation in about one minute, without even removing our bags from the room.
Michael then got ready for bed, and when he was done, so did I. 9:30 PM is quite early for such, but without any Internet access, what else is one to do? I remained awake listening to our progress on the scanner, and then finally about 10:50 I turned in for the night.
Chapter 4: Monday, April 2, 2007
Monday would be our arrival in Florida, followed by our drive west to my parents' house.
Chapter 4.0: Amtrak Auto Train, Train 53(1), Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL (continued)
We woke up around 6:30 and got dressed. We then pushed our call button for Woody to make up our room for daytime mode as per his previous instructions, and then we went to breakfast.
Breakfast was continental, namely bagels, cereal, muffins, bananas, orange juice, milk, and coffee. At least in the Hampton Inn things were cooked. We were done in 25 minutes and returned to our roomette.
Woody told us that our estimated arrival time in Sanford was 8:35 AM, but he was not sure if we were going to be early or late. The CSX-mandated timetable change that added an hour to the Auto Train's schedule officially took effect on April 2nd, but our train had begun its journey on April 1st.
We actually first came to a stop at 8:46 AM, but with all the necessary maneuvers to remove the auto racks and the passenger coach section of the train, we were not given the okay to detrain until 9:00.
Chapter 4.1: Sanford Auto Train Terminal
The first cars began to come off at 9:18 AM. Then we stood and waited and waited for my car to come off. The general rule of thumb is that Kevin's car is among the last, no matter when we arrive. During our time in the terminal awaiting my car, I still had a notion of recording the auto rack numbers. However, I quickly realized that with that section split into so many parts, that task would be impossible. There is no parking lot to illegally stand in at this terminal.
It was about 10:15 when we finally got the car. It was good to get out of there and be on our way.
Chapter 4.2: Driving to New Port Richey
Too early for lunch, we figured on making some distance before stopping to eat.
From experience, I decided to avoid Orlando and take the relatively new beltway around the city rather than I-4. We went into downtown Sanford and turned south/east on US 17 & 92, and then a few miles later we got onto Florida 417, at various points known as the Seminole Expressway or the Central Florida Greeneway. The road makes a long 50-mile detour. Although one beats city and Disney traffic, the downside is that there are many toll barriers along the route. Unless one lives in Florida and has an E-Pass or a Sun Pass, you need plenty of one-dollar bills and quarters. These systems do not reciprocate with the Northeast's E-ZPass.
Back on I-4 around Disney World, we started feeling hungry. We got off at US 27 in Haines City and found a Burger King right at the exit. It was a nice break from driving, about right at the halfway point of today's journey.
The rest of our trip was uneventful. We arrived at my parents' house about 1:15 PM.
Chapter 5: Our week in Florida
I wish I could say we had a delightful time during our week in Florida, but unfortunately, my father was taken to the hospital the night of our arrival, and the rest of our week was centered on visiting him. He had a bladder infection that had caused his body temperature to get dangerously high.
Chapter 6: Monday, April 9, 2007
The following Monday was our departure day. It consisted of our drive east and boarding the Auto Train in Sanford for our northbound journey.
Chapter 6.1: Driving to Sanford
We left my parents' house at about 9:30 AM, and retraced the same route we had taken a week ago. We arrived in Sanford around 12 Noon, and went first to the Seminole Town Center Mall for lunch. Not surprisingly, Michael went for Japanese food while I went to Sbarro.
We got to the station about 1 PM, and we drove right up to the greeter, who took the ticket for the car. The routine was the same as in Lorton: We were directed to park under the canopy, where we unloaded our overnight suitcase and the car was then taken to be loaded onto the train.
Chapter 6.2: Sanford Auto Train Terminal
We went inside the station and checked in. We again chose the 5:00 PM seating for dinner.
This time I did not waste time trying to record all of the auto carriers. That would be an exercise in futility. I did get all of the passenger section of the train as well as the engines. Our consist for the northbound trip of Amtrak Train 52(9):
* (We were here)162 P-42 Locomotive 182 P-42 Locomotive 39000 Superliner II Transition Dorm 32114 Superliner II Sleeper "Virginia" 32092 Superliner II Sleeper "Mississippi" 32503 Superliner II Deluxe Sleeper "A. Philip Randolph" 33101 Superliner I Auto Train Lounge 38054 Superliner II Diner 32505 Superliner II Deluxe Sleeper "Palm Springs" 32089 Superliner II Sleeper "Massachusetts" * 32087 Superliner II Sleeper "Maine" 34121 Superliner II Coach 34132 Superliner II Coach 34119 Superliner II Coach 34127 Superliner II Coach 33043 Superliner II Sightseer Lounge 38047 Superliner II Diner 38067 Superliner II Diner Plus 23 Auto Carriers
We waited outside in order to enjoy the Florida weather and avoid the claustrophobic conditions inside the terminal building. This facility should have been upgraded and expanded when the one in Lorton was.
During our wait, I heard on my scanner that Amtrak Train 98(9), the northbound Silver Meteor, was coming through Sanford. I ran into the Auto Train station's playground, which gave me the closest view of the mainline where the Meteor would pass. It looked like this:
134 P-42 Locomotive 59 P-42 Locomotive 1756 Baggage 62026 Viewliner Sleeper "Ocean View" 62040 Viewliner Sleeper "Summer View" 62046 Viewliner Sleeper "Tranquil View" 8551 Heritage Diner/Grill 28002 Amfleet II Lounge 25057 Amfleet II Coach 25071 Amfleet II Coach 25046 Amfleet II Coach 25076 Amfleet II Coach
The call to board the Auto Train came at precisely 2:30. Everyone went to his or her assigned coaches and sleepers. Most of the attendants were standing by the doors of their cars and had already put their step stools out to aid passengers in boarding. However, we had to wait another four minutes before the door of our 43 car opened and our attendant came out to greet us. I began to have bad feelings about the service that we would be getting from him.
Chapter 6.3: Amtrak Auto Train, Train 52(9), Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA
Our attendant for this trip was named Raashid. Once everyone had boarded, he launched into his speech to everyone in our sleeper. After he greeted us personally in our roomette, Michael and I headed straight for the lounge car. This time we got to have some cheese in addition to the other freebies they were offering.
Back in our room, I listened on the scanner to the switching process as the auto racks were added to the rear of the train. Then at 3:40, I heard communications among the crew that a passenger in the 11 coach had left some important medication in the trunk of his or her car. The train had actually been ready to depart early, but we had to be delayed while one of the station employees boarded the auto carriers, located the correct vehicle, opened the trunk, and found the right bag within the trunk. I did hear the station person, after finally getting to the vehicle's trunk, ask which of two bags was needed, and the crew told him to just bring both of them.
Because of what the crew called a passenger-generated delay, we actually started heading north at 4:13 PM. The conductor however told the station personnel to report our departure as being on time at 4:00.
Our Operations Supervisor on this trip was Danny. He went through his announcement. On our trip, we had a total of 39 cars, of which 15 were passenger cars, one crew car, and 23 auto carriers. We had two locomotives. There were 510 people aboard the train, including 481 passengers, two conductors, two engineers, and 25 other on board personnel. Our train was carrying 217 vehicles, including three motorcycles. He did not break down the vehicles by cars and vans/SUV's. With all those figures, this was definitely a more crowded train than our southbound trip (although the southbound had more auto carriers).
At 4:58, we began walking to dinner. We never got to the dining car. Instead, we were seated at 5:02 in the section of the lounge car that acts as additional seating for the dining car. We were seated across from two strangers once more, but we never made eye contact with them to avoid being asked the same tireless questions.
Our order (for both dinner and desert) was taken at 5:06. Guess what, we both chose the steak! Our food came to us twelve minutes later. At 5:32, our plates were removed. However, for some reason we had to wait until 5:55 for our desert to be delivered. Some tables had already completed their desert and left the area by now, so we had an obvious lapse in service there. We still were done at 6:02 and then headed to our roomette.
Our train approached the city of Jacksonville around 6:55 PM. The Onboard Supervisor pointed out the horseshoe curve the train passes through in the yard, noting that one could see much of the train by looking out on the left. We went by the Jacksonville station at 7:00.
I was text messaging back and forth with Jishnu Mukerji as we continued north. He was aboard the southbound Palmetto, Train 89(9), headed from Newark to Savannah. We expected to pass each other somewhere in South Carolina.
Michael and I went to the lounge car at 7:13 to see the 7:15 showing of the movie. This time it was "The Guardian" with Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher. Despite the large crowd on this train, there was little interest in seeing this movie. Even Michael became bored with it and returned to our sleeper.
We crossed the Florida/Georgia border at 7:30, and almost an hour later the train passed through Jessup, GA.
At 8:50, the train stopped and we dropped power. At 8:52, the power was back, but we were not moving. Keep in mind that with the loss of power the movie was interrupted too, and the lounge attendant had to reset the machine to restart it.
At 9:11, power was lost again. I did not have my scanner with me, but I heard from employees in the lounge car that a breaker had flipped in the engine. Power was restored within a minute, and once more the movie was reset and I saw it to its conclusion. We still were not making any northward progress. Finally, at 9:27 we began to move northward. Then we found out via the last announcement of the night the real reason we had stopped. A CSX freight train ahead of us had been involved in a crossing incident with a vehicle (no fatalities). The flipping breaker was incidental while we had been stopped.
Through the movie, I kept Jishnu appraised of our progress, or lack thereof. His train was running about three hours late, so we still would be passing in South Carolina.
When I got back to the roomette, Michael began preparing to go to sleep. I got ready as well.
We passed Jishnu's train at exactly 11 PM, somewhere in South Carolina. Our subsequent communications via cell phone text were our last, as I went to sleep at 11:20.
Chapter 7: Tuesday, April 10, 2007
Tuesday was the final day of our journey. We would arrive in Virginia and drive back to New Jersey.
Chapter 7.0: Amtrak Auto Train, Train 52(9), Sanford, FL to Lorton, VA (continued)
Around 3 AM I awoke with a rare acid reflux attack. I must have been sleeping very well because I had turned onto my stomach in my sleep. Thus I was affected by our hearty steak dinner and one week's worth of Florida buffet meals.
Perhaps nervous of another such incident, I was awake for good at 6:10 AM, twenty minutes ahead of our alarm. Michael woke up right at 6:30. We were somewhere in northern North Carolina.
Breakfast awaited us. As we left our roomette at 6:50, I pushed our call button so that Raashid would put up the beds and return us to daytime mode. We were seated promptly, this time in the actual dining car. We plowed through our continental breakfast quickly and we left there at 7:11. When we got back, Raashid had indeed turned our sleeping space into a day room.
I was unclear when we entered Virginia, because we were not getting too many announcements from Danny. At 7:48, we encountered slow orders for four miles due to trackwork.
At 8:30, we passed the Richmond, VA station. We learned that our estimated arrival time would be 10 AM. Since the scheduled arrival time was now definitely 9:29 AM, that would be only 31 minutes late. Overall, that was not too shabby considering the delays we had in Sanford and the middle of Georgia the night before.
We passed southbound Regional Train 67(9) at 9:09 AM. At 9:34, we came through the Fredericksburg station.
The train passed through Quantico at 9:53, a lot faster than our southbound trip did nine days ago. We moved over the new bridge span two minutes later. Our ETA slipped to 10:15.
At 10:18, we went onto the Auto Train siding in Lorton. We came to our final stop at 10:26, and the power was cut off. We were allowed to detrain about five minutes later. The final result was 57 minutes late. Raashid had turned out to be a decent attendant, and we bade him goodbye as we detrained.
Chapter 7.1: Lorton Auto Train Terminal
Our Auto Train experience was far from over. This time I did not venture around the parking lot for fear of persecution.
As sure as my first and last names both begin with the letter "K," my car was going to be among the last ones off the auto racks. We just waited with the other passengers outside as the numbers were called for each car. When the crowd had substantially dwindled to relatively few, my Saturn finally appeared and our number was called.
Chapter 7.2: Driving home
I would have preferred to use the Cape May-Lewes Ferry once more, but the schedule at that time of year was sparse on Tuesdays. The uncertainty over when we would actually get moving from the Auto Train terminal in Lorton prevented me from making any reservations. As it turned out, the next ferry departure from Lewes we would be able to make would have been at 4:15 PM, and that would have meant sitting around in Lewes for too long.
Instead, we would be driving the whole way. I decided that we would avoid the Baltimore area and other congestion on I-95 by going over the Bay Bridge and following US 301 on the Delmarva Peninsula up to the Delaware Memorial Bridge. That is the only other way to cross into New Jersey from Delaware short of swimming.
We started out from Lorton and followed I-95 through the Springfield Interchange and into Maryland. We were hungry, so we decided to stop before heading east on US 50. Figuring that one more buffet meal would make our trip complete, we ended up having lunch at Golden Corral, located at The Boulevard at the Capital Centre. Those who attended our OTOL Washington, DC RailFest in the summer of 2005 might remember that this mall is adjacent to the Largo Town Center station on the Metro Blue Line.
After lunch we got back onto the Beltway for a short while, and then turned east on US 50. After Annapolis we went over the Bay Bridge, this time in the direction of the $2.50 toll.
A few miles after the bridge, where US 50 and 301 split, we took 301. This is a divided highway through the heart of Maryland's portion of the Delmarva Peninsula. It is fast but very boring, as there are no turns and no sights to see along the way. It does not even pass through the center of any towns along the way. In retrospect, one might wonder why more people do not go this way to avoid I-95. The reason lies in the next paragraph.
Almost right on the border of Maryland and Delaware, I stopped for gas, having not done so since Florida. Once we continued northward, US 301 had narrowed to one lane in each direction. We went through the Middletown, DE area as various state roads crossed 301 and joined it. Finally, we went over the Summit Bridge, after which the US 301 signs disappeared. The road is signed as Delaware 896 for the next few miles. It is quite confusing to travelers, just losing a road like that. (Delaware plans to build a US 301 toll road in the future that will make the trip a little faster across the state.) In Glasgow, one turns right at a surface intersection onto US 40 and follows that to the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
Back in New Jersey at last, we drove on the New Jersey Turnpike from its southern terminus to Exit 7A, and then I-195 for the final 22 miles into Howell. We were home by about 5:00 PM.
Chapter 8: Conclusion
I most likely will not wait another five years before we take the Auto Train again. The vacation was not enjoyable overall because of my father's condition, but at least the trips to and from Florida were pleasurable.