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All aboard the Auto Train: Amtrak takes riders, cars from Sanford, Florida, to D.C.

Patrick Connolly, Orlando Sentinel on

Published in Business News

For all the fabled glory and hype surrounding the idea of a great American road trip, there are practical concerns to contend with — from the stress of battling traffic to bathroom stops and breakdowns.

One of Amtrak’s non-stop routes aims to satisfy the needs of snowbirds and tourists looking to save hundreds of miles of driving and the headaches of stressful, long hours on the road. The Auto Train is a direct route that runs between Sanford and Lorton, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital. Trains leave each station at 5 p.m. daily and arrive at 10 a.m. the following morning.

For this unique rail experience, the company invites passengers to hand over their vehicles to Amtrak staff for loading onto one of 34 car carriers with a combined capacity of up to 350 cars, trucks, SUVs and motorcycles. Amtrak advertises that this route saves nearly 900 miles of driving.

“You can relax and enjoy a nice dinner while having the experience of a long-distance train. You can avoid traffic and stress on the road,” said Federico Gazzolo, Amtrak’s vice president of product development and customer analytics. “There’s a social aspect. Some customers say it’s magical eating on the train in a dining car so there are other positive aspects of this experience.”

The service began in 1971 with the Auto-Train Corporation, which Amtrak acquired in 1983 and has been running ever since. With four coaches and nine sleeping cars, the Auto Train transported 27,237 riders in March, welcoming more than 200,000 guests aboard in an average fiscal year.

While snowbirds make up a large portion of this route’s customer base, other reasons for riding include vacation or visiting family and friends. Some riders pack their personal vehicle and use the train to assist in moving to a new city.

 

On a northbound trip to see family in Pittsburgh and friends in Ohio and North Carolina, I had the chance to ride the Auto Train in late April. Though pricing varies based on demand and chosen options, the cost for my coach ticket and car totaled $437. I was traveling during a peak time, so the train was completely full.

Here’s what my 24-hour experience was like from arriving at the Sanford station to reuniting with my car just outside of Washington, D.C.

April 24

1 p.m. A friend had cautioned me that the line of vehicles arriving at the Sanford Auto Train Station could stretch around the block, so I was sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare. Though check-in begins at 12:30 p.m. (and closes at 3 p.m.), some guests arrive even earlier. I waited for about 45 minutes and checked in at the welcome booth around 1:45 p.m.

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