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Trip Report

Auto-Train South: Feb 2008

February 13-14, 2008


This year the southbound trip on the Auto-Train took place on February 13-14. As we have done during past few years, I take the convertible loaded with things on the Auto-Train with my wife and the pooch following by air a few days later.

A new exhibit to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Metro-North RR opened at the Transit Museum in Grand Central Terminal on the evening of Feb. 12. When I returned home the auto was under 4 inches of snow at the Croton-Harmon station. Moreover, the snow had turned to sleet and the one mile drive home was slow going.

Luckily the temperature had risen to about 46° by the following morning, making the drive to Virginia much safer despite the very heavy rain along the way. I departed our home in Ossining, NY, at 8:10am and reached the Auto-Train Terminal at 1:57pm after a 295 mile drive with a half hour lunch stop. Because of the heavy rain, I scrapped my normal practice of photographing the train before entering the complex but did get a shot through the window while waiting in line for the check-in booth. Earlier I had phoned the ticket office to reserve the 7pm dinner sitting but was told that this practice was discontinued back in September. The terminal was rather full when I arrived and I was the last sleeper passenger to get the 5pm seating; those who followed had to eat at 9pm.

Boarding began shortly after 2:30. Outside, I noted the train’s consist to be two P42 locomotives (back to back, not elephant style) pulling a diner, a lounge car, 5 coaches, 3 sleepers, another diner, another lounge car, 3 more sleepers and a transition sleeper for the crew. All passenger cars were Superliners. During my past trips this train has had 4 coaches but today’s train had 5. The front diner and lounge car were for the coach passengers; those in the rear for the sleeper customers. This trip I had booked a roomette in the upper level of what turned out to be the second sleeper from the front. As is normal practice, four of the sleepers had the usual mix of rooms and the other two had 10 large bedrooms on the upper level with the normal mix downstairs.

Although the advertised departure time is 4pm, all passengers must be on board by 3pm to so that the train can be assembled. Thus at 3:28 we pulled forward to permit the auto carriers to be coupled on. During this process I noted that the area around the station continues to grow with a shopping center now open on the east side of the tracks, followed by a large townhouse development with more houses under construction. The “highball #53” came at 3:45 and we slowly headed south.

Soon the on board service director made his announcement about safety information and the train’s features. He mentioned that we are being served by On Board Service Crew #3, based in Lorton, that we would run at a top speed of 70mph and that there were 414 passengers and 191 vehicles on board. He reminded us to be watchful for suspicious persons or activities along the way. Before we had attained track speed we were overtaken by Amtrak #91, the Silver Star, enroute from NY to Miami. As it passed us around Woodbridge, our engineer stated, “You’re looking good #91, flagship of the Amtrak fleet.” Further south I noted the VRE commuter parking lots at Brooke and Fredericksburg, VA, to be rather full, indicating some of the long commutes in this part of the country.

The “First Call” to dinner came exactly at 5pm. I was seated with a caregiver for an 80 year old man who was served in his room and a couple heading to Daytona Beach after first joining a cruise to South America. The menu choices were NY Strip steak, surf & turf, a chicken entrée and vegetarian lasagna. Two of our group had the steak and two had the surf & turf. My steak was a little too well done; the baked potato and veggies were good as was the vanilla ice cream with fruit topping. The service was excellent and the setting quite attractive with china service containing the Amtrak “waterfall” logo. I was surprised that none of the other guests at our table left a tip for the waiter. While in the diner we made a 10 minute stop outside the Richmond station awaiting Train 91’s departure. Since it runs faster I assume the CSX Dispatchers wanted to keep us behind it.

After dinner I adjourned to my room to catch up on some reading but later returned to the lounge car to catch the last 15 minutes of the movie being shown and enjoy a nightcap. Sightseer lounge cars no longer are used on this train. Rather, former dining cars have been converted with a lounge configuration at one end and traditional dining car tables at the other. During busy times half the lounge car also is used to serve meals, thereby obviating the need for an additional diner. Some of the car attendants help out in the diner at during meal service. While relaxing in the lounge car I called a friend in the Bay Area. He was on BART when my call came through so we had a direct phone connection from Auto-Train to BART!

We had passed through the Richmond station at 6:02, Rocky Mount at 8:24 and Fayetteville at 10:01. The attendant then made up my room and I turned in about 10:45 to enjoy the gentle movement of the train and the engine whistles up front. The following morning I woke up with the general “wake up” PA announcement at 7am to find that we were running nearly 2 hours late. I had awoken a few times during the night as we were stopping or stopped and later learned there were “signal problems” during the early hours of the morning. One crew member was overheard to mention a broken rail.

Breakfast consisted of cereal, fruit, OJ, muffins, bagels which are set on the table and coffee or tea served in mugs with the Amtrak waterfall logo. As usual, the service was good and we were not rushed out. While in the diner the train passed through Folkston, GA, at 7:42am and I was surprised that nobody was at the viewing platform or photographing the train. We passed the Amtrak Jacksonville station at 8:21 and the big curve near downtown 5 minutes later. During breakfast I had enjoyed conversation with a couple heading to Daytona Beach and a lady from northern Virginia enroute to Sarasota.

After a most leisurely breakfast I returned to my room to read and listen to the train’s progress on my radio scanner. There was rather constant radio chatter between the conductor and the engineer regarding numerous slow orders and work zones along the way, including a 10mph slowdown at mp 694 Rice Creek in the middle of the woods. But it’s always nice to hear transmissions such as “Train 53 has a clear signal at Buffalo Bluff.” Our train passed Palatka at 9:45, Deland at 10:46 and began slowing down for Sanford shortly after 11. Since I had last passed this area, quite a few new homes have been built near the tracks north of Sanford and more are under construction.

We stopped on the main line at 11:09 and then slowly proceeded into the Auto-Train terminal which is on a branch. There followed another stop while the coach section was pulled forward and backed on to an adjacent station track. Once that move was completed, passengers were allowed to detrain at 11:28, one minute short of a 2-hour late arrival. Despite the lateness, the trip had been good. The equipment was clean and in good working order and the crew was helpful and friendly.

While exploring the station area, I noticed the racks were stuffed with the October 2007 Atlantic Coast Service timetables. I pointed this out to one of the agents and told him about the January issue that shows the trains departing Miami somewhat later. He checked the computer, went in the back and came out with a large box of the new timetables after thanking me profusely for pointing this out. My auto came off the train at 12:28pm, exactly an hour after the arrival. After stops at the self-service car wash and a gas station, I headed east on SR 46 to Mims, 32 miles away, where I joined I-95 for the fast drive south. After West Palm Beach I passed several Tri-Rail trains and made a brief stop at the Fort Lauderdale station to pick up current schedules. Final arrival at our Hallandale Beach home was at 6:15pm, after a 244 mile drive from Sanford.

Consist—Train 53, LOR-SFA Feb. 13-14, 2008

97 & 82-(P42) back to back 38045—Dining Car 38067—Lounge Car (former diner) 33104—Coach 34122—Coach 34130—Coach 34128—Coach 34129—Coach 32080—Sleeper “Idaho” 32087—Sleeper “Maine” [my car] 32502—Sleeper “W. Graham Claytor Jr.” 38041—Dining Car 33103—Lounge Car 32503—Sleeper “A. Phillip Randolph” 32102—Sleeper “North Dakota” 32116—Sleeper “West Virginia” 39002—Transition Sleeper for on board crew Plus unknown number of auto-carrying cars

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