Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Amtrak’s Auto-train? Not Such a Good Experience

Amtrak has a special train called the auto-train for people traveling to and from Florida and wanting to take their cars, but not wanting to drive all the way. The train runs from just south of Washington, DC to just north of Orlando, FL, and the fares are reasonable. Norma and I took this train for the first time last Saturday, and shipped our Grand Caravan on it. This is a report on our experience.

Unless you enjoy such pursuits as moving your hand over an open flame, you probably wouldn’t have liked traveling on Amtrak’s reputed auto-train on Saturday, which was a horror show for us. Admittedly, part of the blame for our distress on this trip was due to my booking of a ‘roomette’ for two for the journey. Amtrak’s ‘roomette’ is suitable as a sitting and sleeping compartment only if both parties are under 30 years old and less than five feet tall. The seats were designed by someone who probably liked to pull wings off grasshoppers when he was a child. There was no way one could position oneself comfortably in the seat, and because we were of normal height, no way to sit in the facing seats without interleaving your knees and legs together. When it was time to go to sleep, the seats were made up into an upper and lower bunk, with about six inches of space from the lower bunk to the sliding door. It was a feat of engineering for me to get myself into the upper bunk, and, with only about a foot of space above my head, I almost needed to call the porter to help me get back down from it in the morning.

The dinner was superb, and much better than we ever expected, but shortly thereafter, the real trouble started. The room in our ‘roomette’ was so lacking in space that I decided to spend time in the lounge car where people were sitting quietly, talking, playing cards, reading, etc. Shortly after I arrived, however, the crew decided we would all like to watch the movie, “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull”, a movie obviously made for 12 year old boys and starring the 66 year old Harrison Ford, who ought, by now, to know better. Fearing that someone, somewhere on the train, might not catch every word, the train crew cranked up the volume to that which you only encounter if you have the misfortune of going too early to any movie theater, and have to sit through the previews. Most people just left or suffered in silence; the train crew had disappeared.

To make matters worse, about this time the train came to a stop, and we sat for about a half hour not knowing what was happening. At that time there was an announcement that a train ahead of us, on the single track, had plowed into an automobile at a train crossing, and we could not proceed until the mess was cleaned up. We were also told that if the police needed to make a homicide investigation, the wait could be very lengthy. The couple beside me, who otherwise seemed normal, told me gleefully that this was nothing, that on a previous auto-train trip they were stuck on the train for two days, and the crew had to send out for pizza for everyone. This time the wait was only for three hours, so we got off lightly.

After I scrambled out of the upper bunk about 5:30 the next morning, Norma and I made our way forward to the dining car, where a very nice continental breakfast was laid out. Unfortunately the air conditioning was not then working in the dining car, and Norma, who suffers easily from any kind of motion sickness, became nauseous and ran back to the ‘roomette’ to get some air and sit with a barf bag for a while. I continued to have a nice breakfast, and eventually the AC came on. After checking on Norma I decided to leave her alone and let her sleep, and I returned to the lounge car, where, once again, the train came to a dead stop.

After another delay, the announcement was made that a freight train ahead of us had “taken out a switch”, and we had to wait until it was determined what would be done about it. After about an hour we were told that another engine would be attached to the rear of our train (which was three quarters of a mile long), and our train would be backed up about 6 miles, while Amtrak tried to locate a pilot who was qualified to take us into the Orlando area along a different route. After another delay, we were then told that a crew was working at repairing the switch, and we would probably be underway in about 30 minutes. After about 30 minutes, we were again told that we would be on our way in 30 minutes; after which we were told we would be moving in 15 minutes, and then, again, in 30 minutes. Finally we started moving and found we were in the Jacksonville, FL area, and we would proceed very slowly until we got through the “switch”.

While all this was going on the train crew decided to deflect our concerns and announced that the movie, “Get Smart”, would be shown in the lounge car. This movie would have 12 year old boys walking out on it, and the volume was set at the same level as the movie the previous night. Fortunately I decided to explore the smoking area in the lower level and found it empty and quiet. It smelled a bit, but I sat and rested there until it was announced that we were close to our destination.

Somehow, with all the delays, we were only about three hours late coming into Sanford, FL, and we departed our train to await the unloading of the vehicles. Our troubles were not quite over. When you arrive at Lorton, near DC, you find a large, modern station with several TV’s, plenty of chairs and room, and a nice shop with gifts and sundries. The huge crowd waiting to depart had no trouble finding seats and a place for luggage. Someone should tell the Amtrak management that THE SAME NUMBER OF PEOPLE WHO GET ON THE TRAIN IN LORTON HAVE TO GET OFF THE TRAIN IN SANFORD. I say this because the Sanford station is old and tiny and could not possibly accommodate the number of people on the train. It was pandemonium there.

Fortunately our car was one of the first ones off the train, and we were able to get out of there before we wilted completely. I don’t think we will try the auto-train again, although, I must admit, I met many people who told me that they took this train often; most of them also had horror stories to tell. The first words out of the mouth of the first person I met in Lorton told me that last year they left 4 hours late. There must be some sort of mystique of shared hardship that binds these frequent travelers; I didn’t catch the mystique.


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At 6:54 PM, Anonymous Joe said...

Hey Russ,
If I remember correctly,doesn't Mike Dukakis have something to do with Amtrak? This could explain the reason why it's so screwed up, and to think,--we could have had that fool for a president! LOL That's quite a story. I remember riding the train from Boston or Providence to Trenton NJ years ago on my way to Fort Dix, and that trip was a horrible experience.

At 4:24 AM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

The last time I looked, Dukakis was Chairman of the Board of Amtrak - and running it like he ran Massachusetts.

At 6:15 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is too bad that your trip was not a peasant experience. My wife and I took several trips down south from Providence during the late ninetys. Since I dislike (mild expression, for am terrified to even look at a plane)flying, the car or train were the only options. Our experience was much better than yours.I would say the main gripe was the several times our train would just stop in the middle of nowhere and we were usually not given any reason for it. We did find out that freight trains have the priority, so if there is a delay, many times it is because you have to wait for the freight train to move out.

We had a sleeper car, so our accomodations were very good. We even had our own toilet and hand sink in our room.

The meals were also pretty good.

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At 9:18 AM, Blogger René O'Deay said...

Did you save money by taking the 'auto-train'? Will you do it again? and will you upgrade from the 'roomette'?

At 9:39 AM, Anonymous Jo & Ivan said... always seemed like such a good idea. Glad to hear the details. Hope you both are rested

At 10:07 AM, Blogger RussWilcox said...

Rene, We probably would not take the auto-train again, but it depends on circumstances. Certainly we would not unless we upgraded to a bedroom which costs about $500 more.

At 8:59 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

For $500, and the added comfort, I wouldn't even think about it. What are you saving your money for, your old age? Get the bumper sticker "I'm spending my kids inheritance". Live life to the fullest, you only go around once!

At 6:09 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I must say having taken a round trip on the Auto Train and preparing for a south bound journey, I am shocked by this description. My experience was far more pleasant than the much shorter airplane journeys I am regularly forced to endure.

One thing I would recommend is to forego the private sleeping quarters and stick with coach. The seats are far larger than standard Amtrak seats and reasonably comfortable for sleeping. There are many regulars on the Auto Train and they make newbies feel quite welcome. Especially for a single traveler, the social aspect of the trip is half the fun.

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At 7:05 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Amtrak does not own the tracks they travel on (other than NEQ). Therefore track owner cars (Freight) has priority on all routes. My experience with AutoTrain was very uneventful. In fact it was smooth ride point-to-point..

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