In 1971 Eugene Garfield had a novel idea—provide rail transportation from Virginia to Florida that would allow families to ride in comfort while simultaneously transporting their automobiles in safety. Perhaps Mr. Garfield had traversed the perpetually congested Highway 95 once too often with weak-bladdered children who continuously played keep-away with younger siblings while endlessly querying, "Are we there yet?" for the entire 800-mile trip.
Whatever his motivation, his idea was inspired and passengers flocked to ride his Auto-Train.
Amtrak acquired the Auto Train in 1983, and now shuttles more than 200,000 passengers a year non-stop twice daily. Similar trains are popular in Europe, but Amtrak's Auto Train is the only one of its kind in the US.
The tropical décor of the Lorton station provides an exciting preview of our Florida destination.
The route begins in Lorton where the station is spacious and bright, with tall windows, palm tree pillars and a tropical décor. Young parents, weighted down with pillows and packages, scamper after giggling kids, while retirees smile at commotion from which they've long since retired.
As someone who's hopelessly inept at parking, I'm intrigued by the auto loading process. A vehicle drives up, and like an Indy pit crew, the team tags it, videotapes it to document its condition, then expertly loads it onto the transport cars nearby. Loading takes just minutes and is performed with ease. This comes as no surprise since they load hundreds of vehicles every day.
The waiting double-decker train is new-nickel-shiny, and the two engines hum an adventurer's theme-song—"let's go, let's go, let's go!" I board and meet Cliff, my Sleeper Car attendant, who directs me to my room, telling me to head into the lounge for wine and cheese once I get settled. I like this already!
At a length of 1480 feet, the Lorton platform is one of the longest in the world—as long as the Sears Tower is tall.
I locate my Deluxe Bedroom, a cozy compartment with two beds, bathroom, shower and large, wide windows. There's bottled water, a newspaper, toiletries and just a few steps away, a full coffee pot—all the accoutrements I need to keep me living happily ever after—at least for the next two days.
I stow my gear and stroll to the next car, which just happens to be the lounge. Being directionally challenged, this close proximity is a blessing. If I'd had to navigate a tangle of hallways to find my way back, chances are I'd mistakenly burst into the wrong room while someone was in their underwear. And wouldn't that be a super way to get to know people on the train?
The lounge gathering is like a class reunion where folks mingle and greet one another as long-lost friends. Deb, a long-time Amtrak employee, offers me a glass of wine. Like all the crew, she loves working the Auto Train "because it's always the same run, but never the same trip."
Deb introduces me to Amber, who efficiently serves passengers vino alternatives. As we talk, the train begins its journey toward Florida.
Quickly acquiring my "train legs" (the ability to successfully adjust to the train's rhythm without dribbling wine all over myself) I meander into the next lounge where I'm joined by Sylvia and Burt Gudwin, New York retirees en route to their Florida home. The Gudwins are "frequent riders," ferrying north and south on the Auto Train for the last twenty years. While we visit, they smile and wave at other passengers they know.
Constructed of Virginia Granite and standing 23-feet high, Meade's Pyramid is a highlight along the Auto Train route.
"The Auto Train is a wonderful idea," says Sylvia.
Burt grins. "I have to take a van so I can pack all her clothes. You laugh, but it's true!"
Soon the couple will celebrate their 57th wedding anniversary.
"We met on a blind date," says Sylvia. "The best blind date ever." And she beams at Burt.
"It goes by very quickly," says Burt, commenting on their union's longevity.
"Especially when you're having fun?" Sylvia asks, with a teasing smile.
As we slip through a countryside drenched in buttery sunlight, we pass a stone pyramid some twenty yards from the tracks. Looking like a transplant from Egypt, it is in fact, a monument erected in 1898 to signal our passage through the Fredericksburg Battlefield. Known as Meade's Pyramid, it's the only Civil War monument of its kind.
Auto Train regulars, Dustin McAlister, Andrew Reichel, and Tim Pickul commute to Florida colleges from homes in the northeast.
In another lounge I meet several scholarly types.
"It's the College Express," says Tim Pickul, a Massachusetts native. He and Dustin McAlister of Maine are headed to Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. Their third companion, New Yorker Andrew Reichel, is returning to Embry-Riddle where he's studying to be a pilot.
"He's going to be a pilot?" wisecracks Dustin. "I may never fly again."
Commuting to college by Auto Train seems incredibly smart.
Tim concurs. "We don't have to put a ton of miles on the car, we save on gas, and we can take our time."
A tall man wearing a chef's hat walks by our table. I amaze everyone with my deductive reasoning skills by saying, "You must be the chef." (These kids aren't the only ones with dazzling intellects.) He introduces himself as Irv and I ask if I can tour the galley later. He tells me I'm welcome any time.
Marie Jackson of DC, and John Toukatly from New York, await their cooked-to-order cuisine aboard the Auto Train.
The 5:00 pm dinner seating is announced and I spring from my seat like toast. Once in the Dining Car I'm seated with two other solo travelers—John Toukatly, a retired chiropractor from Utica, NY, moving to Ft. Lauderdale via Auto Train, and Marie Jackson, a DC-based Amtrak employee en route to Florida to visit her mother.
"This is the big adventure," says John. "It's something I've always wanted to do."
I'm delighted to discover that the Auto Train prepares dinner-to-order from a wide-ranging menu. Usually when hunger strikes on other forms of transportation, I'm reduced to gnawing on lint-covered mints foraged from the depths of my purse.
"You can't beat this," John grins as Deb fills our wine glasses and our server Yvette takes our order. [continued...]