Friday, April 10, 2009

An Auto Train Voyage

I have recently completed my "Voyage #18" aboard Auto Train. Such was aboard #53 (24MAR).

Tuesday March 24 began with a drive from the hotel in Pittsburgh (Airport Marriott; Aten Rd, Coraopolis) that was comparatively without incident. I’ve “been there don’t that’ enough in the past to know that caution must be the watchword when traveling due East on US 220 looking straight iinto the sun and entering the Fort Pitt Tunnel. Wouldn’t it be nice if everyone did?

After a fuel stop in Bedford PA, arrival at Lorton was a comfortable 135P, or 85 minutes prior to the 3PM closing for autos (it’s 2PM for SUV’s Vans and Motorcycles). One thing I noted on this journey is the absence of signage once leaving I-95 at Lorton. While there is a good sign on I-95, once at the intersection, there is no signage whatever. One, and considering the average Auto Train passenger is not a fan, could easily head West when they should head East. There is no sign at the entrance to the Auto Train facility. I would hope that Amtrak and the Jurisdiction could properly coordinate on this matter.

There I was met by a fellow I’ve known since college who was at one time a mid-level Amtrak manager (he will retire shortly from the health care sector), also noted that Bltizie was “on duty” along with her handler (I presume she is also a sworn peace officer - many Police Dogs are such). The check-in was handled by the same Amtrak employee who gave me a two minute pass (I showed at 302P) during March 2007 on Voyage #16; with a quick prompt, she remembered me. From the absence of activity, as well as that I had a Bedroom at a rate I have customarily paid for a Roomette, I knew this trip was not going to make Amtrak any $$$. The 5PM Dinner seating was available . While waiting to board, Blitzie (a Black Labrador who if not a service animal, would have gotten a big hug from me) gave the terminal a good sniffing - I guess ’Security Theatre” also is a “now playing” in Lorton .

230P and its time to board; the sixteen car passenger consist, even if as good as empty, is still the most impressive thing Amtrak has on the rails. Line number 5341 was again Palm Harbor and located immediately to the rear of the Lounge. My Bedroom E was of course center car and forward riding. What more could one ask for.

Attendant Mike was willing to allow my friend to board (he did 15 years with the outfit); from there we went to the Lounge where the ‘comp” (tips accepted, and judging from some of the cheapos many of us have met on Amtrak journeys had best not be expected) wine tasting was Naked Mountain varietals.

At about 305P, the first cut of auto carriers was pulled. We both agreed that “party’s over’ when the first coupling was made. While Mike would likely have preferred my friend Roger did not board to begin with, he was confident that we both knew the drill.(more on knowing the drill later).

At 320P, #53(24) highballed.

First I could not help but note that Amtrak and XM Satellite Radio still do business with one another. Even if I personally see no need for the noise, apparently others do. While I would prefer WETA 90.9 leaving Lorton and WMFE 90.7 arriving Sanford, the XM Channel 24 Classic Rock was ‘tolerable’ and with the door to my room closed inaudible. At least it wasn’t some God-awful Lite Rock I was bombarded with in the lobby of a Boca Raton Holiday Inn last month (and unfortunately bombarded again on this trip at a Marriott Courtyard in Maitland FL).

The Welcome Aboard announcement noted there were 95 passengers and 62 Autos aboard - the lightest loading I have ever noted on any of my eighteen AT voyages.

Time for Dinner; AT offers a choice of three entrees (beef chicken fish). The 12oz Sirloin was “good’ (not Morton’s but hardly Denny’s) and cooked to order. The Dinner plates and Salad bowls are ceramic, the flatware is metal, wineware in which comp Williamsburg (all you can responsibly drink0 was served is glass. Napkins are cloth and coffee cups ceramic. Dessert, however was served on plastic ware. Save the last, I doubt if an AT passenger, and most have never used any other Amtrak LD, would even know what Simplified dining Service was. Service attentive and courteous - and well worth my $5 tip (the other three gents at the table also followed suit).

Back to the room; since the Bedrooms were Fireman side, there were the pleasant vistas of the Potomac and the various rivers X’d en route to Fredericksburg. I've often noted at the several Forums at which I participate, the scenery of an Atlantic Coast journey can best be described as “if you’ve seen one Pine Tree, you’ve seen ;em all’ . However, in all fairness, there are pleasant vistas of the Potomac and the several rivers crossed North of Fredericksburg. Also I guess to any Randolph Macon alums around here, I should also note the “down Main Street” in Ashland.

Now it’s “time for The Times” (Journal as well); lights out at about 830P.

I awoke for the Florence service stop, but was too somnolent to open the curtains. My next cognizance was Jacksonville; it appeared we were “more or less” on time, but such was not to be for much longer. Time for the morning announcement where it was noted that account CSX track work, there would be delays with 10A estimated for Sanford.

Time for the cold Continental Breakfast; its never changed from my Voyage #1 a Dec 1972 journey of the private AT. Cereal, muffins, coffee, juice.

Now again back to the “know the drill‘ comment. I noticed a rather “top heavy‘ gentleman walking through the Diner. One lateral lurch on CSX‘s stellar track, and this fellow was “plopped“ into an unoccupied booth. Fortunately, he did not hit the table; his head hit nothing. Other than a Waiter asking “are you OK?” “Yes”, there was no calling the Conductor and Service Director to investigate, and I would presume the incident closed. Now to “know the drill’. I’m leaving the car and this attractive young Waitress, who save about 6” of height was a dead ringer for Michelle O, notes me.. As I’m walking into the Lounge, she says to me “you must be with Amtrak’. I assured her I was a retired CPA that had once been with a railroad and asked her why she thought so. “You’re just about the only passenger who seems to know how to walk on a train. I..don’t need any more of that fellow falling down at my station”. A nice girl; hope she has a satisfying career with Amtrak (dollars to donuts says she has spouse/family who is).

At about 10AM as promised the “magic milepost 759" (at the North end of the Sanford facility) was visible. Owing to the light loading, I had my auto back (safe and sound) and I was on my way to Maitland with first a stop at Bill’s Car Wash; 2418 S. French Av (US 92) in Sanford (any of us Florida hands know there is no such a thing as a dirty auto "down below").

All told, Auto Train continues to be, along with Acela, Amtrak’s best foot forward. While I have always held it be unwise to quote fares for a future Amtrak journey on the web (that's Amtrak's job), but now that the journey is over, the total fare I paid was $526.00. That breaks down to Auto $152, Rail $93, Bedroom $281. All components of the fare are supply and demand. I have paid as much as $700 for a journey - and that was in a Roomette.

Auto Train continues to get my high marks. Looking forward to Voyage #19, whenever such may be.

1 comment:

  1. Glad to read the trip went well. Disappointed the traffic was so light, especially since this is spring break for many schools. Bad economy, competition from Jet Blue, etc.

    I haven't done A-T in a while because of the horrible driving on I-95/Staten Island Expressway/Belt Parkway that makes a 260-mile trip consume almost an entire day.