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Trip Report

Auto Train

June 2, 2010


Itís that time of the year to go north again so, once again, I decided to take the auto train. I made coach reservations early and got a good fare but as the time grew nearer I kept thinking about spending all night in a coach seat trying to sleep. My 62 year old body, overused over many years, does not do well trying to sleep sitting up or nearly up.

I began looking at prices on roomettes several weeks before departure and the cost was significant to upgrade so I nearly gave up. Still, every now and then I would check. One evening I found I could upgrade northbound for around $210 (I say around because I donít remember the exact figure and, as I write this I am on the train so I cannot go online to get the exact upgrade charge).

I decided to look at my return trip in mid-October and found I could upgrade to a roomette for a little under $200. I was relieved to be able to arrange for sleeping accommodations both ways without breaking the bank. It just goes to show that one should check frequently whether flying or traveling by train. Fares for both can change several times a day and without notice Ė for the good and for the bad. I think I may have been lucky but if I hadnít kept checking I would be having a miserable trip.

I originally intended to travel on June 1, 2010 but for some reason, perhaps the fare was less, decided to travel on Wednesday, June 2. This too was lucky for me.

I checked Amtrakís website to see if the last couple of days the train was on time. Very often, the auto train gets in early on both ends. However, I was surprised at 10:30 AM on the 2nd to find train 52 had not yet arrived in Lorton, VA. I didnít pay too much attention after that. I left Tampa for Sanford a little after 11:30 and didnít think about the previous dayís train until about 2:30 when I boarded the train. I asked the lounge car attendant what time the train for the previous day had arrived in Lorton and he told me it still hadnít arrived.

As I was returning to my room after dinner I asked my car attendant if the train had arrived in Lorton yet. By this time it was around 6:30 PM. She told me it still had not arrived and was sitting in Richmond, VA. She said it would probably be close to 9 before it got in if everything went OK. The engine had failed and was awaiting the arrival of another engine in Richmond.

It is very unusual for the auto train to have these kinds of problems but I confess I was extremely relieved that I had decided to travel a day later than originally planned.

Dinner is always enjoyable on any train because you meet people from so many places and so many walks of life. My past experiences have been mostly good with meals on trains. I thought however that the menu had fewer choices than in the past. There was a beef choice, a chicken choice and a manicotti dish. I had the beef and it was pretty fair but I might have chosen something different if I had another choice. It came with a baked potato and green and yellow beans. I have had the cheesecake on this train before but decided to do something a little different this time so I opted for the chocolate cake. It was moist, the frosting was chocolate and it had pieces of solid chocolate embedded in the frosting. If you need a chocolate fix on this train youíll want to get the chocolate cake.

It may sound like I wasnít happy with my dinner but I did enjoy the food. I am, however, always concerned when it appears something has changed on a certain train. I am always afraid changes are really the beginning of cut backs in services. For me, train travel is more than just transportation, it is about service. Train travel, in its heyday, was noted for service, in particular, for those who paid a fair amount of money for first class. I love the service. I enjoy the idea of an enhanced menu for first class passengers, having my bed made up and put away, knowing that someone is attending my car and will answer the call light if I want something.

This may be much ado about nothing but I remember when the Palmetto was a third train going from Miami to New York several years back. It traveled up part of the west coast and stopped in Dade City, about an hour from where I used to live. I chose that train for a northbound trip and was able to get a sleeper. The next time I took that train the sleepers were not available. An email to Amtrak returned a cryptic message indicating they were unsure when (not if) the sleepers would be returned. In the end, the Palmetto is no longer available in Florida. Just call me paranoid.

One of the disappointments of the auto train is no wi fi. It would be nice if one could check email and communicate with those waiting at the other end. I know some trains have this capability but Iím not sure if a diesel-operated train would be able to do this. Technology, however, has a way of catching up so one can hope.

Throughout the night the train travels at a pretty fast clip so hitting the switches can interfere with sleep for those of us who are not deep sleepers. I enjoy the opportunity to lie down on fresh sheets and sleep between those jolts between switches. While I cannot say I am refreshed and ready to go I can say I am in much better shape than I would be if I tried to make the drive from Tampa to Lorton. I far prefer to take the auto train and the best part of traveling first class is the ability to take a shower when you get up in the morning.

It really does beat driving what seems like endless hours on I-95.

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