Auto train

Recently we took the auto train from Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL. The train somehow takes several hours longer than driving, but saves close to a thousand miles of wear and tear on your car and souls. Case in point: we talked to a woman whose husband ran over an orange traffic cone in the wee hours during their drive down, destroying part of their fender and rendering her unable to sleep the rest of the way. They were staying an extra night at Disney just to delay the return trip. 

We’ve done the Disney thing more times than I care to admit, but this time decided to save on airfare and spring for adventure by driving. Why not? I had fond memories of the 16+ hour drive from Northeast PA to suburban Chicago when our oldest was just a baby.  Actually, the only thing I remember was playing “the diaper game” in the backseat. (I feel I should explain the rules of “the diaper game”. Player one places a (clean) cloth diaper over their head and removes it suddenly, repeatedly and with pauses of varying lengths. Player two laughs, cries, eventually falls asleep. I  imagine some of you have played before.) 

About two months before our vacation, I had a sudden epiphany: Driving 34 hours round trip with two kids in the backseat was a terrible idea! I googled alternatives and learned about the auto train, which delivers you and your car 900 miles away, sparing precious wear and tear and sanity.  We booked two sleeper rooms for about the price of airfare. Train travel is not cheaper nor faster than flying, but it was a unique experience and interesting way to see part of the country.

We boarded in late afternoon and our kids took the room across the hall. I reverted to teenager and listened to sweeping cinematic music on earbuds while my husband watched old episodes of Mr. Show on his laptop. We shared a box of Mike and Ikes. It felt terribly romantic.

Yelp reviewers promised ugly, barren landscapes, so I was pleasantly surprised by sunlit bridges and marshlands brimming with life. We barreled past miles of graffiti, which I happen to love very much. I snapped picture after blurry picture from my camera phone, though some turned out. 

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I listened to sappy soundtracks, stared out the window for hours and ate candy. I finally know what my dream job is.

The dining car was pretty swanky. There were white linen table cloths and chinette bowls that looked real but cracked if you pushed too hard with your knife. There were real glass carafes filled with real iced tea and water. Best of all, there were four of us, so we didn’t have to sit with strangers.

That’s something all you introverts need to know about train travel. If you travel alone, you’ll be seated with strangers at meal time. Strangers! On a train! In the name of research and hunger, my husband and I sat with a mother and her adult daughter at breakfast the next morning while the kids slept in. We sat with a mother and her grown daughter at breakfast the next morning while the kids slept in. The daughter asked what side of the train our room was on and declared the views were better from the other side. None of us brought up “criss-crossing” murders, so the whole exchange was disappointing. I shall forever train travel in groups of four or else feign a medical condition to have meals delivered roomside.

Let’s talk about sway, shall we? You know how when you have to stand on the subway or bus and hold onto a filthy pole for dear life? Trains are no different except instead of filthy poles, you grab onto seats and sometimes the people sitting in them. It’s survival, done without much fanfare or apology. You falter, you lunge, you grab with high hopes and minimal eye contact. You mostly stay in your seat to avoid these matter-of-factly-horrifying encounters.

Let’s talk about sleep, shall we? I love to talk about it since I rarely see it otherwise. Sleep and I are like part time lovers. I don’t know what he’s up to otherwise, but we get along pretty well when he comes around. I don’t think he cares for train rides. I laid awake most of the night waiting up, even taking a homeopathic remedy in hopes he too would climb the ladder to the top bunk and smash his head on the ceiling. But I only caught a few dreamy snippets…him sitting across from me in that blue smoking jacket I like so much…him pointing out the picture window at a particularly homey looking hobo camp. Sleep was more snack than meal, but still better than trying to doze sitting up in a car while my husband ran over orange traffic cones.

We arrived whole and mostly refreshed at our destination. Our car met us after a lengthy unloading process and was all “hey what are you guys doing here?” We shook our heads and climbed in and drove him to Disney and later Hilton Head and Home.

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The thing I liked best about this trip was the variety. We fought heat and crowds and bickering, but also found comfort and peace and quiet. We rode bikes on the beach and looked for alligators in lagoons. We laughed, we cried, eventually we all fell asleep.

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13 thoughts on “Auto train

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  1. I really like the way you write and enjoyed the way you personified Sleep:0)). The best travel stories include the good, the bad and the ugly. I’ve known other Pennsylvanians who use the Lorton auto train and had mixed experiences too. As a fellow introvert, the sharing tables would have done me in, but at least you can get up and move around. Glad you had mostly lovely time and hope Sleep is finding more time to spend with you now that you’re back.

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  2. I have come to really enjoy train travel. My once a month eight hour ride from Memphis to New Orleans and then back (which always takes 9 hours each way) compares favorably to the 6 – 7 hour drive. Just took the trip down yesterday and did a lot of staring out the window, listened to music, and got about 5-6 hours of work done too.

    I pretty much spend the entire trip at a table in the observation car. As a fellow introvert, I find that keeping my headset on the entire time, whether listening to anything or not, keeps the bored and extrovert from engaging me in endless and mindless chitchat.

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  3. Loved this….
    i’ve always wanted to take a train trip.
    I am also introverted, but an extrovert/introvert, which means, basically, that my pull to talk to and find out about strangers is stronger than my pull to be alone..so i am a good solo traveler and anthropologist. I also would stock up on snack so if i didn’t want to i would never leave my room…best of both worlds!
    Glad you had a good vacation

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  4. It’s been 11 years since I was last on a train. I had to go east and was dealing with air-travel-related anxiety attacks (since abated, thank you self-analysis and lifestyle-improvement). Listened to Wilco’s “A Ghost Is Born” mostly non-stop and read As the Crow Flies by Anne-Marie MacDonald. Sleep was consequently weird.
    When my future wife and I met at university, we travelled by that train home here in Quebec. We got up to no good quite often. Observation car after hours, what can I say…

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  5. Darn! Tricia said what I was going to! I’ve only taken an overnight train once, when I was still drinking. Swaying tracks and hangover nausea do not go well together.

    I think I should try it sober, I bet it would be an improvement.
    K

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  6. The way you wrote about this was so dreamy and wonderful. It made me yearn for the one type of travel I’ve not attempted. Amtrak has a ‘writer’s residency’ that always intrigued me, too.
    The photos, the sappy music, reaching for safety with high hopes and your clandestine encounters with sleep.
    The feelings you create with your words has me feeling all nostalgic and wishful this afternoon.
    Wishing I could meet you for reals….maybe on a train trip somewhere. xo

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  7. Sadly the equivalent in the UK has no hit the buffers of existence. You used to be able to load your car up in London, sleep on the train, have breakfast and wake up in Scotland. There is still one sleeper service running but no cars. I spotted the weed encased unloading ramp at Fort William last year on our journey there… which we took by driving up… via Birmingham to see my son, Gretna Green to revisit my brothers betrothal site and then on the way back a really odd hotel on a factory filled estate in the Midlands with the most bizarre eatery I’ve ever been in. All you can eat for £10 or something… and hundreds of people who seemed intent on eating until they died or exploded… I was lost for words but will never visit that again.
    We talked about flying up and hiring a car there but that was so expensive I wish we still had “motorail” as it was called here

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