Random Thoughts

A different trip on the Auto Train

... a sequel to a Mirror article in the May, 2006 edition

by Ann Robbins Talbot

A recent conversation jogged my memory of traveling on the Auto Train from Virginia to Florida and sent me running to the Melrose Mirror of May to compare our trip with "The pluses and minuses of the Auto Train" by Dorothy O'Connor. Predictably there were similarities and differences.

We were used to traveling with our trailer in March, but on this trip were meeting a new baby granddaughter, so our stay in Florida was much shorter. A perfect time for the adventure of traveling by Auto Train. We had spent the night in Aberdeen, Maryland, so we had the luxury of a late breakfast and skirting Washington, DC, during the mid-morning lull on the Beltway. This did not mean "no traffic", but it sure beat commuter hour.  

Arriving in Lorton, Virginia, after noon, we were surprised to see people lined up with blankets and pillows ready to camp out in the passenger cars. It did not occur to us to do that. We had reserved a "deluxe bedroom" and momentarily felt we had made a mistake. The car-boarding process caught our attention as our SUV was fitted with a huge magnet marking it #AV3. (I must confess I do not have an incredible memory, but four pages of photos in a scrapbook for reference.) Automobiles were driven up turquoise ramps to disappear into two story, enclosed Amtrak cars. We could not see the method of chaining each one. We had a total of eighty-eight autos in twenty-two auto cars a fairly small train. This was June 7th, one of the last Auto Trains of the season. The winter months carry many more. We had only 180 people in seventeen passenger cars.

After our automobile had been stowed, it was time to board the train with a small overnight bag. We climbed a circular staircase to the upper deck of an Amtrak sleeping car and proceeded to find our deluxe bedroom. As advertised, there was an armchair, sink, vanity and enclosed toilet-shower on the left hand wall and a closet and sofa on the right to be later assembled into bunk beds. It was not roomy, but, if one person sat, the other could walk freely. It was private and cool. We could play cards, read, nap, or just look out the two huge windows  the ultimate in sightseeing. At 4:30 pm the train pulled out of the station.

Dinner was called at 5:30 and 7:00. We were ushered to a table where two people were already seated. This began a most interesting conversation among a middle aged businessman, a female Army officer, and two retired teachers (us). The dinner was elegant and served in the formal style that made train travel famous in bygone days. We thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. When we returned from dinner, our bedroom had been converted for sleeping. We could still enjoy the passing scenery because the armchair was intact and we could sit on the bottom bunk. Much of the scene was woodland punctuated by the downtowns of cities and towns along the way. As it got dark, we went to bed.

My husband was not a climber, so I got the top bunk. I scrambled up the ladder and found the head of the bed at the closet end, not the window. The bunk was quite narrow, but I had been on a freighter at one time and had learned to put each of my feet down between the mattress and the edge of the bed if we were rocking. The middle of the Atlantic Ocean was as smooth as glass compared to my little Amtak upper bunk. I was at two story ceiling level and we were really flying down that railroad track. There were curves which may have been hardly felt at track level, but two stories up gave quite a sway. I sort of just hung on, hoping I wouldn't fall into the sink. Sleep was out of the question.

Suddenly someone put the brakes on and we stopped. Although it was much too early, I scrambled down to see the welcoming arms of the Florida station. However we were in the middle of nowhere, total blackness outside the window except for a little area illuminated by flood lights. There was a small cluster of cars at an intersection of a woodland road, one of which was an ambulance. Within fifteen minutes the cars had driven away and the train continued on through the night. By then we were wide awake and began to discuss what might have happened and what we would do if one of us had to leave the train by ambulance. Would the other go to the hospital or continue on with the automobile which could not be unloaded until the end of the line? The answer probably depends on many factors. Later, when we went down to breakfast, we heard that a young man had had a heart attack. He was traveling with his wife and three little daughters who had stayed with the train.

By nine o'clock we were in Sanford, Florida, cutting a whole day off our drive south. By eleven we were meeting our son at Sea World for a day's entertainment before continuing on to our other son's home in West Palm the following day. In August of that year we bought an RV and have never had the occasion to use the Auto Train again. Perhaps at some point I shall get the opportunity. It's a good way to travel, especially if you can get the bottom bunk.  

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