Auto Train, Sanford to Lorton questions

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Joined
Aug 3, 2017
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I am a long time Amtrak rider - my first trip was Newark to Charlottesville, and I still recall the signs admonishing passengers not to flush the toilets while the train was in the station because they emptied directly onto the tracks. Later, I traveled from NYP to New Orleans on the Crescent, then to Chicago, and back to New York, the last leg in a Slumbercoach berth

My last trip to Florida was this past January, when I discovered, much to my dismay, that there was no dining car. I used the stop in Washington DC to stock up on snacks in Union Station so I would have something to eat for dinner.

Now, I am flying to Florida in two weeks to pick up a car, then driving to Sanford to board the Auto Train. It will be my first trip on this train.

1. Is it first on, last off, for autos? Priority was sold out when I made my reservation. I am planning to show up around 2:15 PM with the car. Will this strategy mean "last on, first off" for my car? I am in a sleeper so am not worried about seating.

2. In the event the "last on, first off" strategy does not work, and there is a wait in Lorton as the cars are unloaded, are passengers allowed to wait on the train, or must everyone disembark and wait for their cars in some waiting area?

3. How do you find your car at the destination. I imagine hordes of passengers and a traffic jam of cars. What is the system?
 

Acela150

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Jan 11, 2008
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As to the train with no dining car. That is the Silver Star. The Silver Meteor still retains a full service diner. I think it's been this way for about 5 years now.

As to the loading and unloading of autos, there is no set arrangement. It's random.

Passengers AKAIK are not allowed to wait on the train. Simply cause they have to turn the train that day to go back to Florida. They have to do a bunch of work on the train for the southbound passengers. I believe their is a waiting area in Lorton for your car. Cars are given a number at the origin point and that number is called out over a PA system at the destination.
 

pennyk

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I agree with Acela150. In the past, I have had good luck and bad luck waiting for my car after arriving on the Auto Train. Your number will be called as the car is pulled up in front.

There are times the train will be early in the arriving station. In those instances, when the station crews have not yet arrived, passengers likely will not disemark until the station is ready.

The last time I traveled on the Auto Train, dinner reservations were given to passengers when they checked in at the station. Those checking in later generally received the very late reservations. Because many "snow birds" will be returning home, your train may be crowded. I usually choose to arrive earlier rather than later in order to get a better dinner seating time. I believe the arrival time has no effect on the time your car rolls off.

I hope you enjoy your time in Florida and Auto Train trip. It should be noted that the equipment on the Auto Train (Superliner) is different than on the Silvers (Viewliner). Your roomette will not have a toilet and sink and the train will be 2 levels.
 

cocojacoby

Lead Service Attendant
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May 13, 2014
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You have to wait in the station waiting area which is very comfortable. You can go outside and watch the unloading procedure from a distance if you want.

They place a number on your car and announce your car is available when it is brought to the front of the station. It works very well although you must be patient. The last time I did it it took about 45 minutes for my car to show up.
 

GBNorman

OBS Chief
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Feb 26, 2017
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Although I did not use Auto-Train this year (the fare this year simply "pushed my obscenity button"), I have had 24 "voyages" over the years.

If they wanted to, they could tell you within five minutes when you will get your auto back. Obviously for liability concerns, they know exactly which autos are in each carrier and they know where same will be spotted at the terminal.

But wisely, they won't. Part of Amtrak's "Louisiana Purchase" of the Goodwill, marketing and institutional expertise - all for $1.00 - from the Auto-Train Corp. Estate, was the wise old owl telling them "don't tell 'em, you'll simply create more problems than you'll ever solve".
 
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Joined
Aug 3, 2017
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A 45 minute wait? That would be fantastic. I was afraid I would be there for 2 to 3 hours. I will be sure to bring a book.

I prefer late seating - the later the better. Let the snowbirds fight over the 5PM seating. The only downside would be if my preferred entrees sell out. Perhaps I will bring a snack onboard just in case.

I thought two level trains were used only west of the Mississippi. I've been on the Empire Builder and California Zephyr and Southwest Chief, all long distance in roomettes. I take it the sleepers will have a hot water/ ice station, as well as a shower room and bathroom somewhere in the car?
 

fixj

Service Attendant
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Jul 18, 2014
Messages
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Regarding the priority car return and its being sold out. You might try calling and requesting it again as you get closer to your travel date. I've done that on two occasions and both times was able to get the prioity car return. It's worth it.
And yes the sleepers will have an ice station and a shower room. As with the western trains, there are bathrooms on both levels. Can't say about hot water, but you can get it in the lounge car.
 

dlagrua

Conductor
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Nov 24, 2009
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After 8 trips on the Autotrain there are a few tips that I can pass on. If you are in a sleeper, don't bother to walk down to the sightseer lounge as it will be overflowing. Get to bed early as its not a smooth ride. Car returns were from 30-90 minutes. Never used the priority car return. I cant say how much time is saved but we are seldom in a hurry. We try to avoid "snow bird" and college trains as they can be filled to capacity. Expect high bucket prices. Can't recall but on one May or June trip to Florida the train was less than half full and prices were lower. The waiting rooms at both ends are of decent size but can fill up. Its a good trip and having your car along with you saves a few bucks.
 
Joined
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We have been taking the auto train every other year for the last 16 years. For the first time, last year, we missed out train. We were there at 2:34 and the cut off is 2:30 - could not believe it. If you are concerned about missing, you might want to plan on arriving before 2:15 in case you hit unexpected traffic. Having missed the ride down, the ride home was heavenly!
 

AutoTrDvr

OBS Chief
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May 29, 2012
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My answers in this color, from an experienced Auto Train client...

1. Is it first on, last off, for autos? Priority was sold out when I made my reservation. I am planning to show up around 2:15 PM with the car. Will this strategy mean "last on, first off" for my car? I am in a sleeper so am not worried about seating.

No, it is totally random. The only way to ensure a reasonable wait time is, as you seem to know, to get the "Priority" option, which puts you among the 1st 20 vehicles to be offloaded. There is absolutely no "last on / first off" procedure in effect. No one can predict how the container cars will be attached at the origin and then detached at the destination. The only container they bother to keep track of is the "priority" container. Offloading will usually start within 1/2 hour of the train arriving.

By the way, I would absolutely *not* wait until 2:15p to arrive. I would arrive as early as I can, especially as there is no LIFO procedure there. You absolutely want to get there as early as you can. Normally, check in begins at 11:30a. If you have a special or "AV" vehicle, check in stops at 2:00pm, and regular cars, perhaps 1/2hour later. Passenger boarding begins at 2:30p. "All Aboard" is 3pm, even though the departure is scheduled at 4pm. No one is allowed to enter the train after "All Aboard" is called. And that's because they're assembling the entire length of the train. If you are originating from Lorton, the passenger part of the train will move outside the station, partially, and then stop... long enough for the car containers to be attached. So you do yourself no good by arriving at the last minute. Furthermore, your car is subject to search by the Amtrak Police. You need to allow time for that. Normally, that's just the dog doing a cursory "sniff" around the exterior of the vehicle. But if the dog hits on something, prepare for a "Shake & Bake" inspection. If you get there by 11:30a, you just might make your train. If you arrive at 2:15p, fughedaboutit!



2. In the event the "last on, first off" strategy does not work, and there is a wait in Lorton as the cars are unloaded, are passengers allowed to wait on the train, or must everyone disembark and wait for their cars in some waiting area?

No, but the station is open and you would normally wait inside the station. Both stations have very nice enclosed, air conditioned buildings and covered areas outside near the offloading area. So, waiting in the station is not a problem. The only time you might actually wait inside the train is if the train arrives so early that the station is not yet open and the station crew hasn't arrived yet (that has happened to me at least once).

3. How do you find your car at the destination. I imagine hordes of passengers and a traffic jam of cars. What is the system?[

When you check in they put a magnetic sign on the driver's door with a number. Memorize that number. Write it down somewhere. As cars are offloaded, they will call the number and that's when you go to the offload area and pick up the car. The number will have an "AV" next to it if your care is a van or truck or oversized.
There are plenty of Youtube videos that show the process in action. Watch them. Here's a sample:


BTW, as you see the autoracks pass through Woodbridge on the above video, you'll hear a car alarm sounding off. That pax is in for a rude awakening when he arrives at the destination. I'm pretty sure his/her battery will be dead from leaving the passive alarm system on. MAKE SURE YOU TURN IT OFF before you turn the car over to the attendants. You don't want to be the one holding up the other cars coming off that autorack....

Here's another sample video going from Sanford to Lorton...

 
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Acela150

Conductor
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Jan 11, 2008
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If they wanted to, they could tell you within five minutes when you will get your auto back. Obviously for liability concerns, they know exactly which autos are in each carrier and they know where same will be spotted at the terminal.
And you can prove this??
 

Ryan

Conductor
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Apr 14, 2008
Messages
17,017
Because they don’t keep track of it?

If they did, knowing what order they’re going to come off doesn’t mean that you know what time every car is going to come off. What happens when you get a car with a dead battery that it takes time to get running? Now the time you’ve given everyone is wrong.
 

AutoTrDvr

OBS Chief
Joined
May 29, 2012
Messages
623
Because they don’t keep track of it?

If they did, knowing what order they’re going to come off doesn’t mean that you know what time every car is going to come off. What happens when you get a car with a dead battery that it takes time to get running? Now the time you’ve given everyone is wrong.
Correct. They do keep track of a particular car entering/exiting the auto rack but, AFAIK, not which auto rack it's entering/exiting (except for the "priority offload rack"). Even if they did, it wouldn't matter as the car attendants on the other end would not have that information. It would have to be transmitted to them. And, besides, there is no guarantee that the auto racks will be disassembled in the same fashion and brought to the ramps in the same order. Nor can one predict how the way the car attendants will off load a given auto rack. It would seem that the "Priority offload" rack set is the last to be attached and the first to be detached. But, other than that, it's totally random, AFAIK.
 
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ET2020

Service Attendant
Joined
Jan 28, 2020
Messages
119
Correct. They do keep track of a particular car entering/exiting the auto rack but, AFAIK, not which auto rack it's entering/exiting (except for the "priority offload rack"). Even if they did, it wouldn't matter as the car attendants on the other end would not have that information. It would have to be transmitted to them. And, besides, there is no guarantee that the auto racks will be disassembled in the same fashion and brought to the ramps in the same order. Nor can one predict how the way the car attendants will off load a given auto rack. It would seem that the "Priority offload" rack set is the last to be attached and the first to be detached. But, other than that, it's totally random, AFAIK.
I know this is an older thread, but there are so few that are specific to AutoTrain, and only a couple that pop up when searching for "SnowBirds".
I plan to snowbird in Orlando, starting next year, and like the possibility of having my own vehicle and no rent-a-car. How many others do that, and what tips do you have to share for new snow-birds-to-be, like me ?? :)
ET;)
 

ET2020

Service Attendant
Joined
Jan 28, 2020
Messages
119
PRICE DROP!
The February 2021 Prices just dropped dramatically.
I booked my return trip from Sanford to Lorton at 1/2 of what it was, and was able to cover it with points !! 👍 🤣
 
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