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Trains, Planes and Automobiles

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image Watching the world pass by from the dining car of Amtrak's Auto Train. Mitch Traphagen Photo

It was more fun than a busload of strippers on a broken-up Ohio freeway...

By Mitch Traphagen

I passed a busload of strippers in Ohio. How did I know they were strippers? The bus said so in very large letters. Due to the artwork on the bus and generous tinting on the windows, it was impossible to see inside, no doubt an unfortunate design feature for those hoping for a free impromptu show along the freeway. I tried to imagine what a busload of strippers does while traveling from town to town. Are they studying microeconomic theories for emerging economies? I felt certain of one thing; they weren’t traveling down the road naked. That would be…well, work.

I didn’t dwell on the strippers for long because I had to focus on avoiding car-sized potholes and various other hazards on the roadway. America’s roads are in sorry shape. It is amazing that one generation could build an interstate highway system that was the envy of the world only to have their children fail at maintaining it. A decade ago, the few states with really bad roads could be counted on one hand. Today it is the norm. In some places, the roads are literally falling apart. Across America, road construction is the bane of the driver’s existence (I’m looking at you, Indianapolis) and traffic barrels are virtually omnipresent, yet the roads seem worse than ever.

I came to the conclusion that the best way to get somewhere is to not drive at all, which led me to the Amtrak Auto Train at Lorton, Virginia, just outside of Washington, D.C. The Auto Train provides daily nonstop service between Lorton and Sanford, Florida. You just drive up, leave your car to one of Amtrak’s careful attendants, and get on the train. The car comes along for the ride in an enormous enclosed carrier at the end of the train.

From Minnesota, past the busload of strippers in Ohio, I arrived at the Baltimore airport to pick up my wife Michelle. The Auto Train was scheduled to leave Lorton at 4 p.m. the next day, giving us the night and the next morning to take a quick tour of the nation’s capitol.

While some may consider it the root of all evil, Washington, D.C. is, to me, the best cure for the bad road blues. Sure, the country’s political system may be a bit messy, but Washington is in its entirety a monument to this nation’s success and longevity. To me it is impossible to stand inside the Lincoln Memorial or before the Capitol Building without feeling a sense of awe and pride. The reverence is palpable in all who come to see these monuments. The steady stream of World War II veterans who come to the city on honor flights serves to humanize the marble and granite; driving pride, hope and honor deep into my heart. The applause they receive from the throngs of tourists wherever they go illustrates that I am not alone in such feelings.

All too soon, it was time to take the short drive down the freeway to the Amtrak Auto Train Station in Lorton. We left early because even a short drive in D.C. tends to run long thanks to the mind-boggling traffic in the city. We were greeted at the entrance to the station, handed an information brochure about the Auto Train and told to stop our car out front, along with the other cars queued up for loading. You must have a vehicle to ride the Auto Train, and Amtrak accepts anything, short of RVs and tractor-trailers. Motorcycles, cars, SUVs and even some two-wheeled campers are allowed. Check-in was easy, with the only request being a photo ID and whether we’d prefer our dinner reservation for 5 p.m. or 7 p.m.

Moments after boarding, our car’s porter stopped by to tell us where we could find things on the train, from the restrooms and shower just down the hall to the dining car. He said there was a wine tasting party already underway in the lounge car. He then asked what time we would like him to return for the turndown service, which involved making up the beds for the overnight journey. Inside the room were complimentary bottles of water and the morning’s Washington Post newspaper.

The beef tenderloin, cooked to order, was excellent. The plate and coffee mugs were china; and the silverware was real, set on the table European style. We brought onboard a train car full of snacks that we never touched, Amtrak feeds you well on this train. Dinner was served with complimentary wine and all meals are included in the fare, but Amtrak certainly goes all-out for those purchasing sleeper car services. After waddling away from dinner in the dining car, we noticed the staff putting plates of cookies out in the lounge cars.

While dinner was presented formally, there are no dress codes for passengers. The only requirement was that parties of less than four be open to dining with strangers. In our case, we were seated with a lovely older couple who were celebrating their wedding anniversary on the way to visit their children in Bradenton. We enjoyed their company and the conversation immensely.

Our accommodation on the train was a “Superliner Roomette”. It is a small, private room with two large, reclining seats facing each other with a picture window alongside. A table could be pulled out between the seats and behind it were individual controls for sound and lighting, as well as electrical outlets for a computer or to recharge cell phones. Opposite the window were shelves and corners for storage. Most of our luggage, of course, remained in our car (which was not accessible while the train was underway) so for the trip, all that was required were small overnight bags. For the two of us, the “Roomette”, while eliciting chuckles at first glance (not only by us, but also by our neighbors) certainly proved roomy enough. Had I one additional X chromosome, I may have called it cozy.

We spent the hours after dinner exploring the train, which was a fascinating journey in itself. In the sleeper cars, coffee, hot chocolate, tea, bottled water and ice were provided for the taking. Each car has two levels. While the upper level contained the complimentary beverages, the lower level contained the restrooms and shower. There were also far fewer staterooms on the lower level, all of which led us to prefer our ground floor accommodations.

It is 9:30 p.m. and the train is passing somewhere through North Carolina. My wife Michelle is reading a book directly across from me in our roomette. Our door is closed and the curtains to the companionway are drawn, giving us privacy within the train and a great view to the outside world passing by. At the appointed time, our porter appeared to turn down the room, converting the two comfortable seats into two surprisingly comfortable beds; smartly made up with sheets, pillows and a light blanket. I eventually drifted off as small towns passed outside our window.

The next morning, we awoke in Florida and took off for the dining car to enjoy the complimentary, open-seating breakfast service, while the porter returned to turn our roomette back to daytime service. Over the train’s sound system, we heard the announcement that we would be arriving at the Sanford station nearly an hour early. Neither Michelle nor I were particularly excited about the news—for us, the 17-hour journey had passed too quickly. For us, the train was comfortable, fun and an adventure in its own right.

On arrival at the station, the auto transport cars were decoupled from the train, arranged alongside each other, and abutted to large ramps that rapidly disgorge the automotive cargo within. The conductor requested that passengers allow those with special needs to disembark first, but there was certainly no mad rush to leave the train. Unlike air travel, every facet of this trip, from boarding to departure, was entirely free of stress and urgency. Traveling aboard the Auto Train was civilized in a way that air travel perhaps was at one time, but will likely never be again.

Once inside the station, we didn’t have to wait long for our car and soon we were on I-4, bound for South Hillsborough. I asked Michelle if she had fun, she nodded happily and said, “Yes!” I enjoyed myself, too. It was more fun than a busload of strippers on a broken-up Ohio freeway.

060211 Auto Train - Images by Mitch Traphagen

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