The Auto Train and Me

On Sunday, July the 9th, I was wandering around Washington D.C. with Michelle and her brother, Michael, who was a native. We had an awesome meal at a German restuarant and was walking toward Union Station in search for some kind of dessert for Michelle. As we stroll through the station, Michael nonchalantly points out that instead of driving all the way down to Florida from D.C. the next day, I could take the Amtrak's "Auto Train". Neither me nor Michelle had ever heard of such a thing, where I can take a train somewhere and my car can come along. Michelle asks the desk attendant about it and he says it leaves daily at 4pm and arrives in Sanford, FL, at 8:30am. Sanford is near Orlando, and a mere 2 hours from my final destination, Ocala. A little thrilled at the prospect of not having to drive for 14 hours, I book a ticket. This will not only be my first ride on the Auto Train, but my first ride on any train in the U.S.

I arrive around 2pm at Lorton, VA, where I'm greeted with a line of about 40 cars, all stationary. Another half hour of sitting here in my running car, a guy in a little golf cart rides up, I show him my tickets, he puts a magnetic strip with the number 15 on it to the side of my car and tells me to go inside and check in. So I go in and wait in another line which lacks that which makes lines worthy of waiting in, movement. I then hear over the intercomm that I need to go back to my car and wait. This time the car lines are moving, and eventually I'm directed to leave it and go back inside to check in. An hour and a half later, I'm checked in and wandering the station. We're told that they are running late, by about an hour, and by 4:30 I get a chance to get familiar with my seat and by 5, I'm on my way to fucking Florida (an hour late, but that's ok)!

First order of business, go to the lounge car for drinks and get my laptop charged (it is a dual order), and maybe a little bit of Angband while doing so. Several hours later, I'm still drinking, but this time, watching some Miyazaki's Future Boy Conan. Now that I'm nicely toasted, I head downstairs in the lounge car into the smoker's lounge!!! Idlely chatting with some of the other smokers, I find out that these rails are actually owned by CSX and not Amtrak, and that Amtrak just rents them or something; the significance of this fact is lost to me, only to be discovered later. Some crappy movie is playing in the lounge right about now, and a few of the other patrons of the lounge car find that "watching Future Boy Conan on my laptop" beats "watching the Shaggy Dog on a 15 inch TV screen on the wall". You may also notice at this time, they've ran out of orange juice for my screwdrivers and are now just serving me straight vodka. As the sun sets, me and the bartender of the lounge car came to the understanding that when I look over to her and nod my head, it means I want another drink. Also by this time of the night, I've struck up conversations with several other people in the train and am now being referred to as the "laptop guy", since my arrival on the train, I've been carrying my laptop everywhere I go (literally). At this point I'd like to point out 2 things that was amusing, whenever I was playing Angband (example) someone would come up to me and ask "are you doing work?" but whenever I was watching anime someone would come up to me and ask "what game are you playing?". Also, there was a mysterious locked door in the mega cramped bathroom. After a conversation with 2 people about what I do for work, trying to explain what programming and porting code means, I hand one of them a 6 year old business card of mine and write Damien's email address on it, noting to email him and not me. We would have kept talking if the last call for dinner seating wasn't made. I asked for the 9pm dinner, the last of 3 seatings, and my reasoning being that people had to show up at the train station by 2pm and didn't have a chance to eat, they'd all be picking up on the earlier of the 2 dinners. Well, I was wrong. I sat at a table of 4 in the dining cart with 3 others who had the same reasoning. I had meat loaf and 2 caraffes of wine between me and the guy sitting next to me. We talked about trains, where we lived, why we were going to Florida, about how this was the first time I had rode a train in the U.S., about trains in Europe, your usual chit-chat with strangers while on a train, I figure. After dinner, I manage to squeeze out another drink from the bartender at the lounge car even though she was supposed to stop serving. A lot of people have gone to sleep except a few occasions of bathroom and water. I did run into someone messing with a laptop in the smoker's lounge. He strikes up a conversation with me about why his laptop isn't working, I end up finding out that he was a year younger than me, his roomate from college was from Ocala, and he lived in Squirrel Hill (Pittsburgh) for 3 years and moved about a year ago. Eventually, I decide to attempt some sleep before the booze wears off.

I go back to my seat to discover that someone is sleeping in the seat next to mine (which was previously empty). No big deal, I'll take the isle. Here is where I first notice, I mean really notice, how rought the train ride is. While reclined in my coach seat, with eyes closed, it felt like I was on a boat sailing across an unpredictable sea of ROCKS. I knew the train had been shakey, requiring extra brain cycles dedicated to balance, I had done this the entire night. I did not however have to deal with it while attempting to slumber. After some unknown amount of time, I decided to give up and headed back to the lounge car for coffee.

A few hours of Angband and a few more episodes of Future Boy Conan, the sun started to rise (notice Captain Dyce in the window's reflection!). As the sun continues to rise, and the outside of the train begins to brighten up, I have the feeling that something is amiss. I mentally recall that we had a scheduled stop in Savannah, GA, to swap the train crews, and it should of happened at night, which it did, but as I stare outside I have this sinking feeling that the scenery doesn't look like Georgia. I should be seeing swampy yuckiness, palmetto trees, stuff like that. Instead, I see pine and deciduous trees. After passing through a few small towns and spotting a few signs and license plates, I assertain that we are still in South Carolina, and the crew change last night did not occur in Savannah. As the time approaches noon, something is definitely up. The other passnegers have been wondering also and I learn from a few of the other smokers in the smoker's lounge, who have previously ridden the Auto Train, that being late is not uncommon. I'm told stories where the train leaves 4 hours late and arrives 10 hours late. Several people there endure repeated trips on the Auto Train that end up being excessively late, and not by choice. One person was on an airplane that had an accident and has unbearable anxiety when near airplanes. Another can't fly because he carries around an oxygen tank (and he was smoking, too, what a badass). I'm told by some of the other passengers that there were rumors of flooding or derailments (which later I hear from a conductor was untrue). I also hear stuff about the heat expanding the tracks, but soon, I get a chance to witness at least one of the causes of us being late. Back to the bit about CSX owning the tracks and Amtrak renting them, owner gets priority. We spent about 20 minutes moving at a walking pace while we switched to a parallel track to allow a CSX freight train to go by. That would explain why we left an hour late, yet it is after noon (more than 4 hours later than scheduled arrival). I also learned that the crew switch happened in Charleston and that we spent about 4 hours just getting out of Virginia (the causes are speculative at best).

As I sit in the smoking lounge, listening to people complain about needing sleep and a shower, I'm watching the scenery trying to determine where we are. After a short nap, I find out that we're in Florida, it's 2pm, we're moving very slow. But before long, I see the light, Sanford Station. We muck about for 20 minutes at the station so that the train cars with the autos (notice the station attendant on the segway) can get moved to other tracks. Then we finally were able to get off of the train, everyone rejoices, and we're herded to an area in front of the station where everyone waits for their cars. For the next hour and 20 minutes, all 300 or so passengers stand in this area outside of the station as cars start appearing out of the train cars; I'm also now remembering what it's like wearing a suit in humid sunny 95 degree Florida. Each car has a number, the cars are not ordered in the train by number, they are ordered by size, but the train cars aren't line up in order, so they're all coming out at random. It was kinda akin to a lottery, but with your car. Unfortinately, mine came out near the end; fortunately, everything was in order and I was quickly outta there, looking forward to driving myself.

In retrospect, the trip wasn't really that bad. It would probably have been better if I got a sleeper ticket (one with a bed and better food, and possible better booze) instead and I would definitely consider riding an overnight train again if it would arrive even remotely on time, and I get the feeling that an Amtrak train that ran on Amtrak tracks wouldn't suffer as badly as the Auto Train did. But the best part of the ride, aside from the booze, was meeting all the random people on the train. Everyone who I talked to were nice and interesting people. I can only wonder what a trip on the Orient Express could be like.

All Pictures

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