Our First Amtrak Adventure

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Our First Amtrak Adventure

My wife and I were visiting family in Florida and wanted to see if taking the train would help us cut some of our commute time. We decided to make the last leg of our trip back to Virginia on the Amtrak Auto Train.

We arrived early, not knowing what to expect and I now know that I don’t need to do that again, in fact, you get a little penalized if you arrive early, more on that later. When we got to the booth that allowed us to enter the train station parking lot, we were asked for our names and then instructed to go into lane #1. When we got into the lane, we pulled up to the station and were given a slip of paper with a number on it and they put the corresponding number on the side of our car using a magnet.

Sanford Amtrak Auto Train Station

We unloaded our bags and left the key in the ignition as instructed. From that point forward, the Amtrak crew quickly went to work taking video footage of all sides of our vehicle so they can avoid damage claims on the distant end. And before we were through the check-in line, our car was already on the train (and this is where the punishment started and I will detail it in a few minutes). In the check-in line, inside the terminal, I was given two meal tickets and a boarding pass.

Sanford Amtrak Auto Train Station

Then we waited and waited and waited. Not knowing any better, we arrived at 12:30 for a 5:00 departure time and a 3:30 loading time. We had no clue how fast the Amtrak crew was and how quickly they would have our car loaded. The Sanford Auto Train station is large and has plenty of seating, handicap-accessible restrooms, and a gift shop/convenience store. There are also a good half dozen TV screens throughout the station. Amtrak also offers a complimentary shuttle bus into the town of Sanford.

** NOTE ** Some of the YouTube videos about Amtrak Auto Train, state that if you are there early you get priority boarding, which we never saw.

Sanford Amtrak Auto Train Station

While we were waiting I noticed a few minor issues that aren’t necessarily Amtrak’s to fix. Things like it seem to be the current trend of the younger generations to put their bags on the seats next to them instead of on the floor in front of them. By design, two people will take up four seats and have a buffer between them and the others. I get it and this is also a time when COVID is still out there, but seriously, your selfishness is making it hard for others to find seats and requiring them to sit on the floor or stand.

The other issue I noticed is that just about everyone in the 30 and younger crowd was wearing their AirPods and talking loudly to people near them, instead of turning them off or removing them. In stark contrast the 30 and older crowd, were all talking on their phones usually via speaker phone, thus talking very loudly so the other end can hear them. Both of these groups make the station a very loud and annoying place. But, I did get to hear someone’s dinner plans, why someone else dislikes Amtrak, and even someone talking somewhat risque to the person on the other end of the phone.

Time to board the train and this is where Amtrak can really make improvements. But before I get to the improvements, I wanted to quickly address that Amtrak likes to make it sound like that after you arrive at the station and your car is loaded that you can board the train, which would have been a really nice feature, but instead, we had to wait in the station for several hours. Now back to boarding the train.

Amtrak Bedroom Suite

There is a sign on the platform that calls out the train numbers, but none of the train cars had those numbers, wait, we found them, we aren’t looking for the larger numbers on the train cars, instead we should have been looking for the small numbers down low on the side of the train, these numbers were very dim and much like the old style Nixie tube lights, and honestly were very easy to overlook, but that isn’t the problem. The problem is that the sign is wrong. We are supposed to be on car 5243, and that was supposed to be to the left of the sign, but it was actually a whole car to the right of the sign and we and about 40% of the passengers were going from line to line, looking for their car.

Once onboard, the rest was easy, but I do want to warn everyone about the stairs to get to your room or seat. We had a room on one of the sleeper cars and that meant we had to ascend up a very narrow winding staircase to the second level. In fact, if your hips are wider than about 24″ inches, you will have a difficult time moving on the stairs and the halls. For those large girth people, you might have a very difficult time with these stairs, so you might want to request a first-level room.

Our room was as expected, but to be 100% honest, I had watched this YouTube video so I knew what to expect. I had actually ordered a Roomette and then bid up for a larger Bedroom, and my bid was accepted.

A little bit about the rooms, the roomette is for two travelers, it has two beds, one single and one double. There is no toilet or shower in this room, you will need to use the public restroom in the train car. The bedroom is designed just like the roomette, except it has a toilet, sink, and shower. As a side note, the toilet and shower share the same 2’x3′ box, with the toilet being in the back of the box and the shower in the front part. The bathroom is small but usable and it will require some interesting acrobatics to get the job completed in this small space. There is also a family room, which I didn’t get to see while onboard the train.

Each car is assigned dedicated staff to take care of your needs. There are three dining times to choose from, for our trip, they were 5, 7, and 9, and we choose 5 pm for our dinner. We were very surprised to see the train left the station about 20 minutes early, which is always a good thing. And after a few minutes on the move, they called for our dinner seating. We migrated back a few cars back to the dining car. The menu contain 5-6 different entrees, we both choose the Flat Iron Steak with baked potato, peas, a bread roll, and a salad that had about 8 small leaves in it, it was a very small salad. My dessert was vanilla ice cream and my wife at the Lemon cake. Alcohol was being served but it wasn’t openly offered, you had to ask for it. I believe that you are supposed to have two alcoholic drinks included with your fare.

When we returned to our room, we watched out the window enjoying the holiday lights that we passed (our trip was in mid-December). We had told our cabin steward that we wanted our beds made at 10 pm, so we entertained ourselves until it was time to have the room converted.

My sleep was less than ideal, I’m not sure if it was the train or I was just in unusual pain that evening. But the bed is fairly comfortable, but most people say that they don’t get a great night’s sleep on the train, at least the first night. Morning came at 6:45 when the crew made their first breakfast announcement.

We pulled into Lorton station about 45 minutes ahead of schedule, which was a nice surprise.

Amtrak Auto Train Lorton Station

Now to the part where I said you get penalized if you arrive early to the station. We were told that the last boarding call in Sanford was 3:30 pm. We arrived at 12:30, which wasn’t the plan, but that is how things worked out. This means that our vehicle was loaded in the first 25% of the automobiles loaded, yet, when we arrived in Lorton, it took over an hour for our car to be offloaded and about 25% of the passengers were still waiting for their car. This is where the penalty I was talking about comes into play. Amtrak wants you to believe that your car will basically get offloaded in the order of when they were loaded, except for those that paid $50 to have priority offloading in Lorton (there are only 25 spots, on a first come first served order). Next time we will try to get priority offloading as it is worth the $50 to me.

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly

  1. The Amtrak app was fairly useless. If you wanted to book a new trip, then the app is there for you. If you want to use it for directions on the train, or for where the train is on a map, the map is useless.
  2. Speaking of following the train on a map, that was useless as well, we kept getting that our train was still at the station and going zero miles per hour. Some websites we tried to see if they had better real-time data, simply displayed the message “Amtrak data is stale
  3. The train’s WiFi was hit or miss as far as bandwidth went. We were trying to watch On Patrol: Live on a smartphone and it would stutter at times. But it really wasn’t bad.
  4. I do want to say that the room goes, we got two bottles of water per passenger and two boxes of chocolates at bedtime.
  5. If you get motion sick easily, then this might not be an option for you. The CSX tracks on the east coast are not always the smoothest.
  6. The food at dinner and breakfast were not terrible but not awesome either. The good thing is that the hot food was hot and the cold was very cold, including my ice cream.
  7. The in-room bathroom and shower aren’t worth the upcharge, however, the locking door on the roomette is very nice to have
  8. We never found the coach and lounge cars, I think we needed to go completely through the dining car and we didn’t want to disturb those that are enjoying their food.
  9. We didn’t run into this issue, but I have heard countless stories, that if the Credit Card machines on the train go down, you are going to be out of luck as they don’t take cash. 
Data is Stale
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Average Joe

Welcome to the Average Joe Weekly blog. This is basically my place on the web where I can help spread some of the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years. I served 10+ years in the Marine Corps on Active Duty, but that was some 25 years ago.

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By Average Joe

Welcome to the Average Joe Weekly blog. This is basically my place on the web where I can help spread some of the knowledge that I have accumulated over the years. I served 10+ years in the Marine Corps on Active Duty, but that was some 25 years ago.

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