Long-distance rail travel, once old-fashioned is also ‘au courant’
by Karen Rubin
The idea of long-distance train travel invariably evokes a sense of romance and nostalgia for the golden years when trains were the high-tech way to travel.
That spirit is still alive here in the United States in perhaps the most unexpected of places: Amtrak’s AutoTrain, which travels nearly 900 miles between Lorton, Virginia (about 45 minutes outside of Washington D.C.), and Sanford, Florida (near Orlando).
This service, where you take your own car with you on the train, is unique in the United States, and possibly the world. Another distinction: between the passenger cars and the vehicle-carrying cars, AutoTrain is actually the longest passenger train in the world.
For rail buffs, especially, these aspects would qualify for a must-do trip.
But a trip on AutoTrain will make anyone a rail buff, with a new appreciation for the possibilities of this seemingly old-fashioned mode in this new age of transportation.
I have now taken the AutoTrain three times, and each time have been delighted with the experience.
Because it is an experience. A serendipitous adventure of change encounters with strangers on a train.
By the end of the 17-hour trip, we are strangers no longer. That is what is so remarkable.
The AutoTrain is first and foremost transportation. It is not sightseeing train, and yet, it is so interesting to see the landscape in the few hours of sunlight after you depart at 4 p.m., and from when the sun rises until the departure at 9:30 a.m. (the time schedule is the same going south as well as north).
But when you have a need for your car and it is not cost-effective to rent, and you are skittish about driving through snow, ice, sleet, rain or even traffic on that endless I-95, slogging through more than 1,400 miles of whatever, the train is such a wonderful alternative, basically cutting down 855 miles – 17 hours – of the drive (I still had to drive the 5-6 hours to Lorton and the next day, 3-4 hours to West Palm, but these were manageable distances).
People also find it a cost effective way to travel, especially if you can schedule your trip during the less popular times, which is essentially whenever the snowbirds have come or gone and school is in session. The earlier you book, the better fare you will get because the cost of everything goes up as space becomes less available.
Amtrak also offers more value than the airlines, particularly with the family fares, and consumer-friendly cancellation and change policies (you can cancel without penalty up until you take your tickets, which is at the counter before you depart, but if it is a roundtrip ticket you have purchased, the return is subject to a 10% penalty if you cancel, and if you lose the return ticket you are basically out of luck).
And many are finding it a very, very satisfying alternative to the less-than-friendly skies for airline travel.
Those are just the reasons that bring you to the AutoTrain.
But once you arrive, you find something so much more: a true experience.
I am very impressed with the whole operation, and how smoothly and pleasantly it ran.
In the first place, the procedure for checking in and giving over your car is so efficient and pleasant. (Note: you should arrive 2 hours before but if you arrive after 3 p.m. for the 4 p.m. departure, you are out of luck because there is a whole process to taking the cars, loading the cars, hitching up the train together).
After you present yourself at the gate and they find your name on their list, they stick a magnet with a number on your car, photograph it on all sides (so you can’t claim that the Ding you got before you arrive was their doing), put papers in where the driver will put his feet, and take the car away. You take out what you need overnight on the train (people take pillows and blankets, reading material, computers, toiletries, etc.). Security people with dogs sniff the cars before they whisk them away. I am amazed at how fast and easy this whole process is.
Then you go to the ticket counter and get your coach seat (the cheapest accommodation), or your number for your sleeping car. This is another important reason to get there early – your seat assignment, because there are great differences.
Many who travel on AutoTrain the first time and take the coach seat say that the next time, they will opt for some sleeping arrangement (it can be as inexpensive as an extra $217 for a roommette accommodating two people).
There are several options, ranging from the most inexpensive roommette to a bedroom; there is an accessible accommodation and a family accommodation, with the charges in addition to the lowest applicable rail fare.
I for one will likely still take the coach seat.
At the check-in counter, though, you will also request a seating time for dinner – 5 or 7 p.m. when the trains are not so crowded; a 9 p.m. seating is added when the trains are crowded, and you’ll find out which movie they are showing in the Lounge car. (I checked in at 2 p.m. and the 7 p.m. was filled, so I opted for the 9 p.m. seating).
The dinner as well as snacks that are out in the Lounge Car all the time, and a continental breakfast in the morning are all included in the rate.
When the trains aren’t so crowded (and this is a critical issue when you are planning your trip) they will do their best to give you an empty seat next to you, so you can stretch out more comfortably. Inside tip: ask for a seat that is not directly in line with the stairs because the light will be in your eyes all night; another tip, take a mask and earplugs.
The train stations at Lorton and Sanford are both very comfortable – there are TV monitors and snack bars. You can usually board after 2:30 p.m., and you will likely find snacks put out in the Lounge car – munchies, fresh fruit, and coffee, tea and hot chocolate. You need to be aboard by about 3:30 p.m., because at that point, the train cars are being moved and assembled.
(Sleeping car passengers have their own Lounge and Dining Car. they are treated to a wine tasting and cheese.)
And then the adventure begins.
The AutoTrain cars look giant from the street-level – they are awesome double-deckers with most of the passenger seating on the second level; the first level is for the bathrooms (very comfortable, clean; there is even a toilet that has a changing area; the fact they are in the car reduces the amount of back-and-forth traffic and opening/closing of doors all night). You pass through the cars at the second level to go to the Lounge Car and the Dining Car. (People with mobility issues are seated in the lower level and they will bring down food.)
Our train going down to Florida is crowded enough that we have the three seatings for dinner, but it doesn’t feel all that crowded (I still get the two seats to myself). These seats are fairly comfortable, more like first class seats on airlines and probably even better than that, with plenty of room to stretch out. There are also electric outlets at each passenger seat.
I spend hardly any time in my seat, though. I am off to the Lounge car and plug in my computer to the electrical outlets and get some snacks.
We actually depart about 10 minutes early, and we are on our way.
History Rolls By
The scenery is very pleasant – you can even get some idea of where you are from the pamphlet that you get with your seat and car number, which gives you the time you should be at every stop and some description of the more significant sites.
The conductors and stewards are extremely pleasant – they seem to really enjoy train travel and the passengers and are wonderfully helpful – and you realize that this is gracious, even charming style of travel, even without the fancy trappings of the Orient Express.
There has been an orientation by the steward when we first got on – where things are, etc. The conductor has come on the speaker with some interesting information about our train.
The train extends three-quarters of a mile long, the longest passenger train in the world (though traveling at 70 mph, it still only takes about one minute to pass through the train crossings).
Our train is carrying almost 300 passengers (it can carry up to 600) – 147 passengers in coach and 143 in sleeper cars – and 129 cars, 42 vans/SUVs and one motorcycle for a total of 172 vehicles. In all, the train has 43 pieces of equipment – 16 passenger cars and 27 car carriers.
I am thinking about rolling down to Florida and all the gasoline that is not being consumed and the carbon emissions not being spewed into the atmosphere.
There are 22 onboard service crew, two conductors and two engineers (we will stop at Florence, S.C., to change conductors and engineers, refuel, and continue south).
He tells us that a continental breakfast is served in the dining car, first-come, first-served, from 6 a.m. to 8 a.m.; 9:30 a.m. is scheduled arrival time, but the train has been arriving 15 minutes to 1 hr 15 min early. You can place a wake-up call.
He lets us know that we can follow our route in the pamphlet that gives approximate times and is filled with wonderful information about the places we pass.
Soon we pass through Quantico, which the brochure explains is completely surrounded by a Marine Corps base – one of the largest in the world – and the Potomac River.
Soon after, we roll through the heart of Fredericksburg – THE Fredericksburg – which was established in 1728, named for Frederick, Prince of Wales, and son of King George II, and was where George Washington moved with his family close by. But it is most famous for its role in the Civil War and its location midway between Washington and Richmond. The proximity of these critical places to each other resonated in my mind after having read Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln.” What we see from our window is very charming.
The Lounge Car that I sit in on the way down is a newer one, with windows that go up and around the roof, so that the light streams in, like a real sightseeing car. There are also flat-screen TVs – a couple are especially large, where later on that evening, the DVD movie will be shown (the romantic comedy, “The Proposal” on the way down and the most marvelous animated feature, “Up” going back north).
Ashland is another interesting town we travel through, which the pamphlet notes was originally known as a Slash Cottage, a stagecoach mule stop on the Old Washington Highway between Richmond and Washington. The railroad tracks run through the center of town (others may be familiar with the town from its reputation fighting Wal-Mart.
We are literally rolling through history.
We do not stop at any of these places, and basically sail passed the train stations, the train’s whistle – that fabulous sound – a wail that dissipates on the air. In fact, we do not stop for passengers at all – this is essentially an express right to Sanford.
I realize that this is just one of the important differences between the AutoTrain and the regular passenger trains we have taken between New York and Florida in the past (and enjoyed as an adventure also, but more arduous). These train cars seem newer, more advanced – they fly along at speeds up to 70 mph and basically glide – there isn’t the rattle and bump. The occasional twist as the train makes a turn or passes over a rough part of the track feels like when the airplane hits a patch of turbulence – in fact, that’s what I felt it was as I was watching the movie later on, momentarily forgetting I was on a train.
The train continues on through Richmond, Petersburg and into North Carolina.
Darkness has descended and so our focus turns inward – to what’s on my computer, to other passengers. there is a stream of passengers as they go to the dining car for the 5 p.m., and then return, and then the 7 p.m.
I’ve positioned myself in front of the biggest of the flat-screen TVs to watch the movie, and just before the ending, have to go to the 9 p.m. seating.
Strangers on a Train
Dining on a train is special, and it is especially interesting because you are seated with other passengers until the table of four is complete. And that’s when serendipity takes over. The people you meet makes each trip unique.
The dining car is very pleasant – flowers on the table, table cloths. There is wine in a decanter. We choose from about five different menu selections – I choose the short rib, there is also vegetable lasagna, chicken with broccoli and cheese.
It is served on a fancy plastic “china” that is just fine.
On the way back north, I am seated for dinner opposite a burly fellow who turns out to be Russian, from St. Petersburg, where he is a well-known actor in a serial television show that is like “Homicide.” I guess correctly that he plays the gangster, and ask whether, if I were in Russia, I would be clamoring for his autograph. Yes, he says.
I finish my dinner in time to see a second showing of “The Proposal” – the objective to get to a late-enough hour so that it is easier to fall asleep.
The steward has put out cookies in addition to the fresh fruit, and there is coffee, tea and hot chocolate available, in addition to drinks (sodas, liquor) and snacks you can purchase at the “bar”.
Finally, I make my way back to my coach seat, where there are two pillows and a thin blanket waiting. I have come prepared with a mask for my eyes and ear plugs, and like most people on the train, have dressed in comfortable sweats (fashion is not a big deal on this train).
Sleeping is not easy, despite the relative comfort of the chairs and the space to stretch. I still find myself waking every hour or two or three. But it isn’t terrible. It is why most people who have taken the AutoTrain come back and take the Roommette, the least expensive sleeping accommodation, which is a private accommodation that consists of two sleeping berths, one on top of the other (you pay for one but get two). Roommettes are available on both upper and lower levels.
The Bedroom, the most expensive accommodation, offers private accommodation with the two berths, plus chair and restroom/shower. Two bedrooms can be combined to accommodate four adults traveling together. The bedrooms are only available on the upper level.
A Family Bedroom is also available, – a clever arrangement that has four berths in it (located on the lower level).
There are also accessible bedrooms that accommodate passengers with limited mobility. They include sink, vanity and toilet, and are located on the lower level.
There are public showers and restrooms in all the sleeping cars.
Sleeping car passengers, which is the equivalent of first class, also enjoy dinner on china with glassware (instead of the plastic we get in Coach), cups and silverware, a wine tasting with cheese and vegetable trays, choice of red or white wine, entree, sides and desserts.
The sun begins to come up about when we hit Jacksonville, Florida – we have slept through North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. When we have taken the regular Amtrak passenger train from Penn Station, we have another eight hours to go before reaching West Palm; on this train, it is four hours to go.
Continental breakfast is very pleasant – cereal, bagel with cream cheese or jelly, a banana. The fresh coffee is terrific.
I meet a nuclear engineer who had worked with the federal regulatory agency, and have a fascinating discussion about alternative and renewable energy – I don’t even realize the time passing.
We get to see what “natural Florida” is – surprising to many to see the cattle ranches and a rodeo ring.
We actually arrive an hour early at Sanford station, which is undergoing a $10 million renovation funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. The current 2,500 sq. ft. station configuration of three separate structures will be replaced with a 10,000 sq. ft. facility with a passenger waiting area, ticket counter, gift shop, caf�, and restrooms. The new, larger station will include a waiting area with seating for 600, an increase of 370 over the current waiting area, which now is partially housed in a tent.
A new traffic flow will provide easier access for passengers as they drop off their vehicles under a large canopy prior to boarding the train.
I am amazed at how fast they unload the cars – within about 15 minutes, they begin to call out the numbers of the cars. It probably takes an hour before all the vehicles are off-loaded. The station is comfortable enough for waiting and nobody seems to mind, even the families with young children. We occupy ourselves in conversation with our traveling companions, strangers no more.
I take note for my return trip, that Amtrak offer a free shuttle bus into the historic town of Sanford, from 11 a.m., with the last returning shuttle at 2:40 p.m.
The Trip Back North
Unfortunately, despite my best effort, I don’t arrive at the station early enough to take advantage of the free shuttle into Sanford, but my fellow passenger tells me she has spent 2 1/2 enjoyable hours there, looking at antique shops and so on.
Established in the late 1800s, Sanford has a significant collection of older commercial and residential architecture, its streets are lined with live oaks hung with Spanish moss, and it is set on Lake Monroe. Sanford is actually very close to Walt Disney World Resort, Universal Studios, Sea World, Kennedy Space Center, making the AutoTrain an especially convenient choice for people visiting Central Florida destinations.
The return trip lets us see more of this rural part of Florida – DeLand (founded by baking soda magnate, Henry DeLand, and the first city in Florida to have electricity), Pierson (the nation’s fern capital), Palatka and Jacksonville.
The Lounge Car this time has the bar in it but not the high windows. No matter, there is atmosphere enough: when we embark, there is Frank Sinatra and other 1940s pop music classics playing that sets a wonderful mood, and a jovial bartender who makes it all the more festive. A foursome are playing cards; another couple has coincidentally met up with neighbors from home.
Darkness means that we still don’t get to see Savannah, Georgia, or Charleston South Carolina, or Rocky Mount, North Carolina, but there are out there, in the night.
On this trip north, at breakfast I am seated with a family that drove the whole way down from Boston, and complained of the traffic and the weather, and find the AutoTrain a delightful alternative.
We pull into Lorton, Virginia, on time, and I watch with fascination how they unload the cars – as delighted as the kids in their mothers’ arms. (It turns out that all the ends of the car-trains open, so that the cars can be linked to one another and they just drive through – I really wondered about that.)
In fact, everyone, even those complaining of not having a perfectly restful sleep, have this little-kid sense of delight getting off the train. It has been a wonderfully unique experience, a little like the feeling you get after camping in the woods.
There are many advantages to scheduling your trip when it isn’t busy – not the least is that the less crowded the train is, the more likely you will have two passenger seats together, but the fares also are significantly cheaper.
One way coach fares range from $93 to $228; roundtrip fares range from $157 to $456. Everybody pays the coach fare regardless if you take a sleeper accommodation.
One-way fares for Roomettes (which accommodate two people) range from $124 to $375 (as they sell out, the price goes up), which is added on to the rail fare; one-way fares for Bedrooms range from $281 to $782.
Everyone traveling in sleepers must pay the applicable coach fare but the sleeper charge is per cabin, not per passenger. So, a couple traveling in a Roomette would pay $310 ($93 coach fare + $93 coach fare + $124 for the cost of roomette) plus the cost of a vehicle (to travel on the AutoTrain you must travel with a vehicle).
One-way fares for vehicles range from $152 to $304 for standard cars; $169 to $339 for oversized cars (vans & SUVs); $112 to $225 for motorcycles.
In addition to cars, vans and SUVs, the AutoTrain also transports motorcycles (and there are motorcycle tours in Florida you can take), small boats, U-haul trailers, and jet-skis. In fiscal year 2008, 234,839 passengers traveled on the AutoTrain, an increase of 7.8 percent over the previous year, and very possibly a record number.
Train Travel is Stylish Again
I think about how many fewer cars there were on the road, traveling down that I-95 corridor, burning gasoline and spewing carbon emissions.
In fact, in one year, AutoTrain carried 112,188 cars and 1,757 motorcycles, resulting in a gasoline savings of about 5,048,460 gallons (20 mpg at 900 miles).
In addition to providing relief from driving between the Northeast and Florida and saving the cost of gasoline and tolls, the AutoTrain also provides passengers with an environmentally-friendly way to travel. By taking approximately 100,000 cars off the highway each year, the AutoTrain prevents an estimated 19,000 metric tons of Co2 emissions from spewing into the atmosphere.
In fact, traveling by rail contributes less per passenger mile to greenhouse gas emissions than either cars or airplanes. According to U.S. Department of Energy data, Amtrak is 17 percent more efficient than domestic airline travel and 21 percent more efficient than auto travel on a per-passenger-mile basis. When combined with all modes of transportation, passenger railroads emit only 0.2 percent of the travel industry�s total greenhouse gases.
Amtrak has taken its environmental role even further: it is a charter member of the growing Chicago Climate Exchange, the world�s first legally-binding integrated greenhouse gas reduction and trading system. Amtrak has agreed to cutting diesel emissions by 6 percent by 2010. This represents the largest percentage of reduction committed to in the United States on a voluntary basis. By choosing to travel by rail, Amtrak passengers are already a step ahead because the carbon footprint generated by their trip is smaller than that of most other modes of transportation.
I think about how much better off we would be with more long-distance train service.
The day before I left Florida, President Obama was in Tampa talking about $8 billion in stimulus money that would help pay for a new high-speed railroad connecting Orlando with Tampa.
AutoTrain celebrated its 25th anniversary in 2008. It was initially a private company that was acquired by Amtrak, the nation’s quasi-public passenger railroad.
It might strike people curiously, then, at the passenger-friendly service.
The renovation of the Sanford station is the last piece of a multi-year plan to bring increased convenience, improved service, and more station amenities to passengers who ride the popular AutoTrain. New passenger equipment was added in the 1990s, new car carriers in July 2005 and a new station and mechanical facility at Lorton opened in 2000.
As Americans have sought alternatives to crowded highways, Amtrak is–and has been– providing another way, albeit without the fanfare and prestige. The success of the AutoTrain shows in a very direct manner that Amtrak is part of the travel solution and is taking cars off the road every day of the year.
“As Amtrak actively moves forward with plans for a greener, safer, and healthier future, we will be looking for other places around the country where an AutoTrain service can be started,” the company stated.
The reason the service has not been extended north of Lorton is because the overpasses and bridges are too low to accommodate the double-decker cars.
For schedules, fares and information, passengers may call 800-USA-RAIL or visit Amtrak.com, a very user-friendly site.
Monday, 15 February, 2010
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