Take The A-train

Skip the highway hassle and travel in comfort -- with your car in tow -- on Amtrak's Auto Train between Florida and Virginia

September 17, 2006|By Michelle Deal-Zimmerman | Michelle Deal-Zimmerman,SUN REPORTER

SANFORD, Fla. -- speck in the center of the state known for its sunshine, Sanford is close to Orlando, Fla., and near Daytona but far away from both. Its downtown is a tangle of gas stations, fast-food joints and bait shops. It has a Main Street and a few prettily named thoroughfares such as Persimmon, Mulberry and Tangerine.

Sanford also boasts an international airport, but it's better known for its trains -- well, one train in particular. It's here that you will find Amtrak's Auto Train station tucked into what appears to be a small neighborhood. That is if you don't miss it. (The signs leading visitors to the station are a bit faded. Kind of like the perennially struggling Amtrak.)

With a maze of tracks and numerous cavernous rail cars, many looking abandoned, you won't mistake this station in rural central Florida for more than it is: A busy outpost of interstate-weary travelers who either have too much stuff to take on a plane or are deeply in love with their cars. And let's not forget those train enthusiasts who love to ride the rails or those who are afraid of flying.

Two Auto Trains travel daily between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla. One train is southbound and the other northbound. The only requirement to take the train is that you bring a vehicle. Most people bring a lot more.

There are families with kids -- the Auto Train departs less than 50 miles from Walt Disney World and is a well-used option for those headed to the amusement park mecca. There are retired couples -- the train is popular with the snowbird crowd -- and young couples. There are also a few motorcycle riders with their shiny, chrome two-wheelers. There are, however, no pets. They're not allowed.

My husband and I arrived without tickets so we had to park and see the ticket agent first. The colorful poster behind the ticket counter promised a new Auto Train station of the future with a wall of shiny windows and angles of sophistication. Coming soon. But not too soon, considering Amtrak's financial woes and Congress' reluctance to fully fund the nation's railroad.

The customer service was quick and efficient, assigning us seats and a dinner schedule. The dinner menu was displayed prominently at the desk, whether to whet the appetite or dampen the anticipation for Choo Choo Chewies -- a type of chicken fingers popular with the younger set -- could not be determined. The Auto Train typically offers three dinner seatings -- 5:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. But this train isn't fully booked so there will only be two seatings. Usually kids eat early so we chose the later dinner time.

With our ticket and boarding pass in hand, we dropped off the car -- leave the key in the ignition, please -- and were assigned a vehicle number. Among the papers we received was a warning not to leave valuables in the car. Since passengers cannot access the cars during the trip, we wondered who's going to bother our belongings. It's a bit disturbing for Amtrak to advertise that it doesn't trust its employees, but we had only a few coins in the tray so we left them. We placed our suitcases in the back seat and were off.

The all aboard had already sounded as we climbed the stairs to our seats. Passengers can board up to two hours before the train's scheduled departure at 4 p.m. The train car was very clean -- immaculate, even -- with pillows and blankets arranged neatly in the overhead bin above each seat. As I took my seat, I overheard a fellow passenger ask if the train was on time. She was worried because last time she took the Auto Train it left four hours late. Despite that, she was back again and was assured the train would move out on schedule.

And so it did. By 3:30 p.m., the passenger cars were being smoothly connected to the auto carriers and within 30 minutes or so we were rolling northward, the late afternoon sun shining brightly through the big picture windows.

The Auto Train bills itself as the world's longest train, often stretching for more than half a mile. On this day, there were 17 passenger cars, 28 auto carriers, two conductors, two engineers and 28 crew members, according to Ginger, the onboard service director, who announced this information over the intercom. There would be a midnight stop in Florence, S.C., to change crews, refuel and take on clean water.

Riding the rails

Don't take the Auto Train for the scenery. Sure, there are grassy flats of land, lakes, rivers, swamps, forests of pine, acres of cabbage palms and pastures full of cows. But there are also cement mixing plants, power generating plants, concrete graveyards and curiously, a circus. Well, I did spot a few Cole Bros. Circus trailers that were either abandoned or in deep storage. Alas, I did not see a tiger or elephant.

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