They call it “the longest train in the world,” this steel horse that I rode on the rails non-stop from just outside Orlando, Florida, to near Washington, DC, in what the travel brochures told me would be “the most enjoyable way to travel” the nearly 1,400 km between the Sunshine State and the US capital. It’s called the Auto Train and it’s designed to take passengers and their cars overnight to those two very popular US destinations.
My train will convey 238 vehicles and 492 passengers. Of the latter, 300 will take their seats in rail coaches; the other 192 enter sleeper cars. Our train has a total complement of 46 cars for the non-stop, approximately 18-hour ride. Our journey “up north” actually begins in Sanford, Florida, some 42 km north of Orlando, and will take us through five states: Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia.
Our destination is Lorton, Virginia.
Besides not having to drive, passengers save money on “gas, hotel or motel, depreciation of your car and just plain tiredness,” notes retiree Juan Walte, a former foreign correspondent with USA Today.
The brochures claim that “on board the Auto Train, you’ll enjoy a stress-free journey by rail, skipping the traffic congestion of [Highway] I-95,” and in this they are correct.
“I-95 is not the most thrilling interstate as far as the landscape is concerned, especially in Florida, where it’s flat, straight and boring,” notes Walte.
Interstate 95, the main highway on the east coast of the US, serves cities such as New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, DC, in the north and beach areas like the Outer Banks and Miami Beach in the south. Many young couples in the northeast taking their kids to Disney World in Orlando board the Auto Train in Virginia, after packing their suitcases into their vehicle and thus avoiding restrictive airline baggage rules.
Tourism remains Florida’s number-one industry and this doesn’t count retirees, so the demand is there for the Auto Train.
Unfortunately, there is no longer any direct service to Florida from Los Angeles, New Orleans, Chicago, or the Midwest. The US let its passenger rail system almost dissolve and instead built a vast network of interstate highways, so many feel thankful the Auto Train was saved.
(Not everyone takes the train. Sy Waldman and his wife Sandy winter in Florida and don’t mind the drive back home. The Waldmans engage in sightseeing on their drive, often exiting the I-95 and taking side roads in Georgia, the Carolinas, or the take I-81 through the Blue Ridge Mountains.) Prices for the Auto Train vary. A one-way ticket for two persons and a vehicle, including dinner and breakfast, can range from about $300 to $800. Why the spread? There’s no fixed price on the Auto Train; the rate depends on how crowded each train is at the time of booking, and on the season.
Fares to Florida in January are usually more expensive than in summer. Also, there’s an extra charge if the traveler desires bedrooms or roomettes.
Since the train leaves at 4:00 p.m. eastern time, passengers only have a few hours to watch the world go by. The scenery is not that great anyway; railroad stations, industrial plants, warehouses, old houses, forests, swamps, shacks and discarded factory equipment. (Though there is also the occasional 19th-century colonial home and southern-style mansion.) ON OUR journey, we traveled in a two-story coach car. For dinner and breakfast we are seated at tables of four in a dining car. A buzz of conversation fills the dining area as does a lounge car. (I find it easier to communicate with fellow passengers on the train than on an airplane.) As retiree Lawrence Stolbach of Boynton Beach, Florida, notes, “the food is decent.”
Actually, our dinner companions were surprised at the choices, quality and service, although others complained that to cut costs Amtrak has discontinued the practice of serving a carafe of wine. Stolbach is not sure he would take the trip again. He explained that they were seated up front just behind the dining car and the engine, and they could hear the engine’s shrill whistle at night.
“I’m taking the ride off my bucket list,” he said, adding, “been there, done that.”
My wife and I met interesting people: a woman electrician who has volunteered for service projects in Costa Rica, Egypt and Greece. Another passenger is a surgeon.
Both dread driving for hours in highway traffic. The doctor served in a combat trauma center during the Vietnam War. On the return trip to Florida, we met a young couple from Latvia who had boarded motorcycles for their sightseeing in the “Sunshine State.”
As we have dinner, we all share travel experiences and destinations. The most common topic of conversation: Where we’ve been in the US and the world, what we did there and what sights we took in.
Often people met and discovered they were from the same city, even the same neighborhood, and began discussing local restaurants.
Many felt at home and some even began telling us their life story.
While we were eating dinner the train passed through Jacksonville, Florida, which I learned is America’s “largest physical city,” with three times the area of New York City.
Soon, we enter Georgia. The towns here have folksy names like Savannah (known as the hostess city of the south) and Folkston, or Jesup, the latter named for General Thomas Sidney Jesup, who served during the Creek War of 1836. The towns swept by, and we saw many quaint building signs such as “Doc’s Watering Hole.”
We made a brief stop in South Carolina to change crews. In the morning, there’s the Marine Corps Base Quantico, one of the largest military bases in the world, and also Fredericksburg, Richmond and Ashland, all in Virginia. In Lorton, Virginia, we disembark and waited for our vehicle to come off the freight car’s ramp. We got in, and moved out into traffic on I-95 north for nearly three hours until we reached Philadelphia.
I must say I agreed with Juan Walte, who said: “I enjoyed the trip and it’s worth it. I’m a railroad fan and thus any train trip is fun for me.”
The author, a journalist and travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, (Marion Street Press) and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press). He blogs at www.bengfrank.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on twitter @bengfrank.