Most people build neither the finest houses nor the most impressive facilities next to a train track. I might. I like the sound of a passing train: it means travel and adventure. But I may be warped: in this case because I heard lots of folk songs and country and western music as a young adult.
We decided to take the Auto Train from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia on our way to Hershey for my 50th high school reunion. Driving with motel bills for a couple nights – we are too old to push through in one or two days – would have been the least expensive way to travel. But we have been up and down the East Coast so often, it is hard to find anything novel. Flying wouldn’t have been much more expensive even after renting a car for the weekend, but the airlines seem to be conspiring to make every flight less comfortable. So we took the train. It was the most expensive way to go only because we wanted to have the comfort of our own bedroom and bath. There was also a small additional charge because our SUV, loaded with more than we would ever consider taking on a plane, was deemed an “over-sized” vehicle. I like their phone number: 1-800-SKIP – I-95.
Paul, our porter, greeted us when we arrived, made note of when we wanted our beds made up, and informed us there was free wine and cheese in the lounge car. I settled down for a few minutes with a newspaper that was provided in our room before heading for the lounge car where we shared a table with Ed and Judy, a dentist and his wife who had been taking the train since their adult daughters were small. There is a lounge car with a bar in the evening and a cold breakfast (cereals, bagels, muffins, fruit) in the morning.
Having chosen late seating for dinner, after our wine, we went back to our compartment to read and look out the window. I find looking at the homes and shops, even “poor” ones, interesting. They are the guts of America. I like crossing streams and rivers. I like passing freight trains. I like looking at autos waiting for the train to pass behind the barriers on crossroads. I like looking down the main streets of small towns. Dinner tables (those for sleeping cars) have table cloths, and a choice of entrees is accompanied by wine.
The routine is the same going both directions. One is asked to arrive at the station by 2:00 p.m. although they begin accepting vehicles as early as 11:30 a.m. As we drive for several hours to get to the station and traffic around both Lorton and Sanford (Orlando) is often congested, when going either direction, we go a little early and have lunch. Sanford has been renewed to become a quite attractive spot with many restaurants, antique stores, gift shops, galleries etc. Lorton Station is a new development with shops, restaurants, homes and apartments where we had a good meal at the Fireside Grill.
The train departs about 4:00 p.m. (we left early) and arrives the next morning by nine. Vehicles come off the train as they are loaded, but this is not necessarily the order in which they arrive. They also transport motorcycles, even those with sidecars, strapped to their own little train of wagons that goes inside the freight cars.
When we arrived in Lorton, I was taking pictures of the cars being unloaded when Alie said “there is our car.” It was the third off. On another occasion, we were second to last: that has a special annoyance because the owners of the last car get gifts. Second to last takes about an hour.
One must travel with a vehicle. Everyone pays a basic fare, but the cost of the vehicle could be shared by everyone traveling in it. There is no additional charge for meals. One can travel in coach with a spacious reclining seat, or pay more for a “roomette” which makes up into upper and lower berths, a “family bedroom” with four berths, or a “bedroom” with an additional chair, sink and toilet/shower combination. Two bedrooms can be connected. Most fares are refundable if you need to cancel.
One final tip: fares for bedrooms going north in the fall and south in the spring are much cheaper than fares for trips the opposite direction — the “snowbirds” are traveling then.