Unlimited and Untapped

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“If you will just remove your luggage for the evening, I’ll be glad to take your car from this point on.” I remember thinking that the last time someone in a noticeable uniform said that to me, I was checking into a hotel I later discovered was far too expensive for a Presbyterian minister to afford. Nevertheless, my three fellow Florida vacationers and I all bailed out of my Mercury, grabbed our necessary overnight items in a scurry, and headed inside. The scene could be commonplace, except that this was no exclusive downtown hotel with valet parking. We had arrived at Sanford, Florida, the terminus for our overnight spree back to our Virginia homes.

Last month my wife Elizabeth and I, together with her brother and his wife, concluded a week long hiatus in Ormond Beach with a northbound trip home on Amtrak’s #52, Mr. Gunn’s Auto Train. I had heard about and seen pictures of Auto Train for years, including the odd purple-red-white U36B movers of Amtrak’s predecessor. But this was to be my first onboard experience of the service.

My brother-in-law (also a rail fan) and I convinced our gracious wives to arrive early at the suburban Orlando station so that we could poke around the terminal. A walk around uncovered some interesting finds: ample Superliner equipment (both those for our train as well as others on various ready tracks), a five-track stub-end area for loading the auto carriers, a service and repair area for the racks, a simple engine servicing facility, the ’70s era Auto Trainstation, and of course, the numerous auto carriers themselves.

We discovered several versions of the carriers in use: two and three level racks for sedans; taller two level versions for larger SUVs and vans. Even some motorcycles were being loaded on a special skid. After you drop off your car and receive a claim number, your auto is whisked away up a ramp and into one of the long “tunnels” formed by sets of four and five carriers sitting coupled together for loading. We watching some coupling, stretching, and air brake tests until the call came, and we boarded and settled into our sleeper rooms. From there brewed a palpable excitement about the overnight run north to suburban D.C.

Four things make the Auto Train unique from my many other Amtrak expeditions:

1. The length of the train is unusual and impressive. Two P40 Genesis units, back to back, were our power for the run (#839 and #836). After a transition sleeper for the crew, there followed two sections of Superliner cars – all clean inside and well maintained. The forward section of the train contained all sleepers; the rear section, all coaches. Both sections had a lounge and diner car of their own, bringing the Superliner consist to twelve. Following the Superliners, there came the impressive string of assorted auto racks: in our case, some 18. I have always supposed that Amtrak operates dual Genesis units on many of its regular-sized trains at least in part to protect against unit failure on the line. I remember thinking as we got under way that Auto Train may be a train that actually requires the tractive effort of two working units! All in all, we were some 30 cars of northbound movement.

2. What other Amtrak train can you ride and see great switching action on both ends of the run? Consider theCrescent in Lynchburg: The train pulls in quickly, people and things are loaded, and away they go. Even in larger termini, the action of building the train is often out of view. By contrast, the Auto Train departures and arrivals are actually a switching operation of some scale. After the head end power moves around in front of the Superliners and makes a couple, a switcher from the shops (in this case #506, a Dash 8-32BWH) begins assembling the multiple cuts of auto racks into one long string. That cut is then pulled out of the loading area, back through a yard lead, and then pushed forward to couple to the rear of the passenger sections. In Lorton, the next morning, my brother-in-law and I watched as the reverse took place (here with an older SW1000R #798 in gray). The racks were cut off, drug north to a yard lead, and then over the course of 30 minutes they were divided up into five or six cuts on various spurs for unloading. I had never associated Amtrak with flat yard switching before!

3. Strangely, there are no stops along the line. All passengers and autos ride point to point, taking on or letting off no one else along the way. Other than a stop around midnight for an engine crew change (which I slept through) and the occasional stop or slow down in a CSX siding for a meet or a pass, #52 stays under way pretty much all night long – a conductor’s dream! Note also that at some point in the night, we passed the southbound #53, coming from Lorton.

4. Incredibly enough, we arrived in Lorton more than 15 minutes ahead of the scheduled arrival. When was the last time your long distance Amtrak movement had to slow down in advance of the station in order not to arrive too soon? Now that’s impressive – and unusual.

After we arrived, I asked my sister-in-law (who had never rode a train before, much less eaten or slept on one) about the experience:   Did she sleep? “Not really.” Indeed, none of us had. But did she enjoy it? “Absolutely!” To be sure, we all had a wonderful time! Consider the context: Striking sunset and sunrise scenery, clean and smooth-rolling equipment, freshly cooked cuisine on white linen, turndown service for your bed, on-time arrival the next morning, and not on a scratch on my car after some 855 miles of portage. Amtrak cynics beware! Only the occasional lateral jolt of a Superliner in a rough turnout gave us and our coffee pause for concern: all kinks and bumps beyond the jurisdiction of our carrier. Only Jacksonville and their forces can remedy such matters.

After riding the Illinois Central’s all-Pullman northbound Panama Limited overnight to Chicago in 1950, David P. Morgan was so pleased with the railroad’s good effort that he considered the experience to be “unquestionable proof to me that the potential of American railroad passenger service is both unlimited and untapped.” **

I stepped from the Auto Train with a similar deduction in mind. And the superlative moment? Just a short while later, we drove away toward home in my very own Mercury. Nice touch, Mr. Gunn. Very nice indeed.

** from Confessions of a Train-Watcher, George H. Drury, ed., 1997, p. 62