Where does the “longest” passenger train in the world operate? No, it’s not rolling along tracks in Europe, Asia or South America. It’s Amtrak‘s Auto Train in the United States.
Auto Train, which stretches three-quarters of a mile in length with two locomotives and up to 40 or more passenger rail cars and vehicle carriers, travels along 855 miles of track between Lorton, VA, just south of Washington D.C., and Sanford, FL, near Orlando. Operated by Amtrak since 1983, in a typical (non-pandemic) year, the train carries 250,000 passengers and 130,000 vehicles, including cars, SUVs, pick-up trucks and motorcycles.
The good news is that while other train frequencies have been reduced due to changes in consumer travel patterns this year, Amtrak has retained Auto Train’s “daily” frequency in both directions.
Late in 2020, Travel Agent boarded Amtrak’s Auto Train for the southbound trip from Lorton to Sanford. Here’s our first-hand look at the experience, benefits, tips for rail travelers, accommodations and what to expect on the ride.
Saves Time, Avoids Stress
One big perk for travelers heading from Virginia to Florida is that Amtrak’s Auto Train makes no scheduled stops along the 855-mile route to pick up or disembark passengers. Only one short technical stop was made on our ride for picking up new crew and taking on fuel. At times, it may stop for a minute or two on a side track to allow a freight train to pass.
Once the train departs the station, it travels continuously through Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and northern Florida until it reaches the station on the other end of the route. People driving a similar route would likely need to spend spend one or two nights in a hotel along the route.
Guests arrive at Auto Train’s station mid-day, check in their vehicles starting at 11:30 a.m., relax in the terminal and check-in there, board around 2:30 p.m., and sit back and relax as the train pulls out of the station at 4 p.m. that day. Note: Amtrak has “hard” cut-off times for checking in vehicles, as well as a detailed fact sheet about AutoTrain that shows what type of vehicles and equipment (such as roof racks) are accepted for transport.
Auto Train rolls along the tracks overnight, arriving at either Sanford (or, in the opposite direction, Lorton) around 9 a.m. the next morning. Presto, the journey between northern Virginia and central Florida, or vice versa, is over—without any driving stress.
Train riders can happily steer clear of Interstate 95’s aggressive drivers, truck traffic, roadway back-ups and construction delays—not to mention hours and hours of driving. Instead, they can relax in a comfortable seat, read, stream a movie on their tablet, enjoy a meal or drinks, and watch the scenery outside their window. They can sleep onboard and, after breakfast the next day, they disembark, get in their own vehicle (no need for a rental car) and drive off. It’s an easy-to-like concept.
Arrival and Boarding
Both stations—Sanford and Lorton—are in suburbs of major metropolitan areas (Washington D.C. and Orlando), so be sure to leave plenty of time for the drive to the station, given the potential for traffic conditions on I-4 or I-95. Some travelers driving from hundreds of miles away stay overnight at a local hotel prior to departure day.
Turning into the entrance road for Auto Train’s Lorton station, very close to I-95, drivers will see exterior kiosk booths ahead. If drivers arrive prior to check-in time—as we did—they’ll line up and wait. Some riders left their cars in that line (prior to the kiosks’ official opening) and walked into the station to grab a quick snack, peruse the gift shop or visit the rest rooms.
When kiosk(s) do open, the line can be long but, thankfully, the car check-in goes quickly. Drivers simply provide basic ID information and the process takes only a minute or so. The Amtrak employee hands the driver a folder with their car’s assigned number. Drivers pull forward under the station’s covered exterior awning. There, Amtrak employees are waiting and a magnetic numbered placard is slapped onto each car’s side.
Ticketed passengers grab their carry-on and perhaps a small suitcase, and then are asked to leave their car unlocked with the car keys inside. Consumers then walk into the station for the passenger check-in. Be sure you can handle whatever you take inside; while rolling personal carts are provided, Auto Train does not offer checked luggage service.
Tips? Be sure to leave those keys. It’s easy to forget, as we listened to many P.A. system announcements asking passengers to return to their car and bring the keys. It’s also good to disarm any car alarm (as if it goes off during the journey, it will drain the car’s battery). Amtrak also tells passengers not to leave any valuables in the vehicle being transported. That makes good sense, but many people traveling north or south for months at a time do pack their cars to the ceiling. We admit that we were one of those and didn’t have a choice.
We’d recommend all items left in the car be placed in the trunk and out of view. That said, we needed to use the back seat, so we covered my things with a black blanket, so items were not immediately visible or noticed by anyone walking by the car. We also carried my laptop computer with us on Auto Train. Just understand that riders assume responsibility for any valuables left inside their vehicle.
During the pandemic era, Amtrak has reduced Auto Train train capacity and put new health/safety protocols in place.
On our trip, we felt Auto Train’s dedicated Lorton terminal (its interior shown in the photo above) had plenty of seating—even right up through boarding time—that allowed for good social distancing.
Most riders sat at least one to two seats away from other riders. Masks were required, as well, and for the most part, people abided by the rule. In addition, there is some seating outside the terminal entrance for those preferring fresh air.
That said, once you’ve turned your personal vehicle over to Amtrak, don’t expect to go back out later and wait inside it. Cars are quickly moved away from the entrance by Auto Train employees and then loaded into the vehicle-carrying cars.
Inside the station, a table provides riders with hand sanitizer and health/safety tips. Check-in itself uses social distancing and Amtrak employees at the check-in counter are behind plexiglass.
During booking, both upper and lower level Coach seating options are provided. During check-in at the station, the agent will assign either a window or aisle seat for the journey.
Handicapped-accessible seating is provided near the station entrance. Service-wise, we observed that Auto Train employees were highly attentive and kind in assisting riders with mobility issues, finding wheelchairs, helping these riders board and carrying their parcels or bags.
Those with mobility issues and Sleeper Car passengers are boarded first as a priority, followed by general boarding.
Once on the platform, the wait outside our Sleeper Car was just minutes. Then, a friendly Amtrak employee checked our ticket, smiled, provided directions to where our Roomette was in the sleeper car, and asked to “mind the gap” for our safety in boarding.
Coach Class Cars
We’ve taken six Auto Train one-way journeys during the past three years—half in Coach, half in an upgraded Roomette. Here’s a bit about Coach seating:
One welcome surprise on our first AutoTrain ride? Coach compartment seats recline—no surprise there—but they also offer leg room rivaling the space of airline business or even first-class seating. That said, be sure to bring a travel neck pillow or even a regular pillow and throw or blanket. Amtrak doesn’t provide those in Coach.
A tip about the Coach car restrooms? They’re on the lower level of Coach passenger cars. So, we’d suggest those with mobility issues reserve a seat on that same lower level when booking. To get to the upper level, riders must climb a fairly tight staircase with one 90-degree angle. While scenic views are great from both levels, the seats on the upper level provide a higher “perch” for views of the landscape.
A luggage storage space is located just inside the Coach car’s entry door; it can handle small bags that may not fit in the passenger car’s overhead bins.
Seating in Coach is two-by-two on each side, and Amtrak is now helping guests with social distancing by allowing solo travelers to put their personal belongings on the seat next to them—thus blocking that adjacent seat. Yet, friends and family members still will find seats together. Guests must wear masks in the Coach cars at all times.
During this recent journey, we stayed in a Roomette, an entry-level private compartment designed for one or two guests. The perks are two-fold: It’s private, so it’s perfect for social distancing from other passengers, and it has “lay-flat berths,” so riders can get a decent night’s sleep.
During the day, two fairly roomy seats face each other with a white fluffy pillow on each. At night, the two seats are “made up” into one fully flat bed. A second berth also can be pulled down from the ceiling, with a few small “cubbyhole-like” stairs providing access to that upper berth.
Our Roomette’s door slid open and shut and had an inside compartment lock. Guests seated inside can either look out to the car’s narrow corridor by leaving the drapes open, or sit in privacy by pulling them.
It’s great to know during this pandemic era that fresh air is circulated within the compartments. All trains are equipped with onboard air filtration systems and the fresh air exchange rate is every four to five minutes. We’d suggest keeping the Roomette doors shut while seated. While Amtrak policy requires riders to wear masks when moving within the narrow public corridor running between the Roomettes (shown in the photo below), some passengers did not abide by the rule.
From the Roomette, riders have great exterior views through a large expanse of glass. Guests can pull blue drapes for privacy or while sleeping.
A small pull-down table between the two Roomette seats also offers “extender” fold-out surfaces, nice for making that table space a bit larger or bringing the table space closer to the seated passengers.
Adjacent to the seats is a 120-volt outlet (not a USB outlet) where we plugged in our adaptor with USB plug. Other compartment features include two hangars for jackets or coats, a couple of small storage shelves and air conditioning/heat controls. Top perk? Sleeper Car guests, including those in Roomettes, receive service from a dedicated Amtrak steward. Throughout the train ride, the service was friendly and attentive. A button within the Roomette can summon the steward.
While Roomettes don’t have a toilet or shower within the compartment itself, a private restroom for guests in that Sleeper car is at the end of the interior corridor, just steps away. Guests can freshen up by using a shower on the car’s lower level. Sleeper Cars also have a machine in the public corridor for complimentary hot coffee and hot water for tea.
All Amtrak Auto Train Sleeper Car accommodations offer newly upgraded (in 2020) bedding, pillows and towels.
When the steward made up our Roomette’s two seats (one is shown in the photo at right) into the lower berth for sleeping, he added a bottom sheet and more pillows. He also placed a sealed plastic bag with a soft, duvet-like covering inside on the bed. We liked knowing that the duvet was fresh.
Good news: We slept fairly well. Granted we didn’t use the “top bunk” but we would definitely book this Roomette again. It was good value, provided a decent sleep and assured privacy. That said, we discovered that Roomettes have very limited floor space when the lower berth is made up for sleeping. Tip? Wear slip-on shoes. That way, if one wants to get out of bed and head for the corridor’s rest room in the middle of the night, people can avoid our challenge of trying to tie shoelaces at night with limited floor space.
Earlier this month, Karen Quinn-Panzer, franchise owner, Dream Vacations, Milford, CT, also stayed in a Roomette. On the “pro” side, she and her husband liked the preferential boarding, the Roomette’s privacy (which delivered the feeling of safety during this pandemic era) and that dinner was delivered to them.
With that said, Quinn-Panzer and her husband, who are both age 65-plus, added that the sleeping set-up was a bit uncomfortable for older folks as they had issues with the upper berth. “I imagine that the Roomettes may work well for singles and those under 45,” she told us, but she suggests that “family rooms are a more comfortable alternative for middle age and older couples.”
Fortunately, there are other upgraded Sleeper Car options that offer more space and comfort. They range from bedrooms to family bedrooms and accessible bedrooms.
Bedrooms have a sofa and armchair by day and upper and lower berths by night; an amenity kit of travel products on demand; in-room sink, restroom and shower. Family Bedrooms span the entire width of the car with ample space for two adults and two kids 2-12 and feature two sofas by day and upper and lower berths by night.
Located on the lower level, Accessible Bedrooms span the width of the car and offer ample space for a wheelchair; they feature a sofa for two by day and upper and lower berths by night.
Stay tuned for Part Two of “Just Back: Amtrak’s Auto Train” to learn more about our experience with onboard beverages, dining, the disembarkation process and the process for getting your car/vehicle back outside the station.