Off the beaten track

LORTON, VIRGINIA

While this is a cycling blog, this post is a little different. Just a little off the normal track so to speak.

Car at Lorton

I was headed to Florida with my mother for the Pan-Florida Challenge, a 200-mile cancer charity cycling event. Rather than drive, I decided to try the Auto Train.

AutoTrain Station, Lorton

The train departs from Lorton, Va., which is about 10 miles from my home and about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. It goes to Sanford, Florida, which is about 80 miles from our first destination. We couldn’t do much better as far as those logistics.

My car is in one of those train cars

I am not going to do a cost comparison. The Auto Train is more costly than driving. I also think I got nailed with a fare jump from looking the day before. But we paid $1000 for two with a sleeper car.

Sleeping car corridor

Driving would have been 800 miles (30 mpg) and gas was averaging $4.15 per gallon. We would have stopped en route and needed a hotel.

James River, Richmond, Va.

We traveled during a time COVID restrictions were in place, the main one was wearing a mask while in the public areas of the train. One doesn’t need a sleeper car (room) as coach seats are available. But I wasn’t going to subject my mother to wear a mask for 16 hours straight. In our room, we did not need a mask.

Take a picture (of your car), you’ll remember the number better

For rooms, we had a choice of a smaller and cheaper roomette that did not have a private bathroom. Or, as we did, a room that sleeps two or a family room that sleeps four.

Lorton, Va.

The train was scheduled to leave at 4:00 p.m. Check-in was between 11:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. This is for loading cars. We were in line by 12:30 p.m. I checked in and was not required to show my reservation on the app or an ID. Simply name. My mother never presented herself to the agent. We waited outside, it was a beautiful day, until 2:30 at which time we boarded.

Double seating in the sleeper car

We had to go up steps to the second level of the car. The corridor was small and we found our room – B. Inside, the main “sofa” was two seats side by side that would open down into a bed. There was a rear-facing seat as well. The bathroom was a one-seater and had a shower as well. There was a sign stating that it might be easier to shower seated (on the closed toilet). Maybe if one was traveling 2-3 days but this would be an overnight trip. No shower is necessary.

Rear facing seat

Our car attendant was Rob, a very nice young man from Fort Washington, Maryland. He came to our car after we were underway to get our food orders. He brought dinner to the car and then came in at 10:00 p.m. to convert the room for sleeping. The dinner was actually very good.

Top bunk

The top portion of the cabin was pulled down and formed a top bunk. The bedding was comfortable enough but we were on a train. There was rock and rolling, not quite violently, but shaking at times.

James River, Richmond, Va.

Breakfast was ala carte and was four cars back from ours. I donned the mask and went for a walk, returning with two hot breakfast sandwiches. There was coffee in our car. Rob came in and removed the bedding and restored the seats to their upright position.

Waiting in line at Lorton

The train pulled out of the station at Lorton around 3:50 p.m. We seemed to be on a siding for 45 minutes before rolling. I imagine that was coupling the cars carrying the automobiles to the train.

Breakfast car

The train is non-stop except for a crew change and refueling in Florence, South Carolina, around 11:30 p.m. The train runs on freight train tracks and is at the mercy of freight schedules. It may or may not be on time. We were pretty close, arriving 15 minutes behind schedule.

Sanford, Fla.

After we got off the train, and gave a generous trip to Rob, we made our way outside and waited for our car. It cost $75 for priority unloading. They would take up to 30 cars for this service. For everybody else, they announced the cars would be offloaded in completely random order. It did not matter if your car was loaded first or loaded last. It was in one of those six auto carriers all parked side by side.

Sanford, Fla.

The first cars rolled off at 9:47. Our car took 52 minutes and was near the end.

Car rolling up at Sanford

So it was expensive. But it was stress-free. The average moving speed (52 mph) wasn’t great. One could drive faster but are subject to weather, road, and traffic delays. If it was free it certainly would be the way to go. But there is a lot to factor in whether it’s right for you or for me the next time.

The stats

I took it one way because my return trip was going to be direct to Somerset, Pa. and included bike riding on the Blue Ridge Parkway. But I’m glad to have it as an option.