Riding the Rails: A First-Hand Look at Amtrak Auto Train's Dining and Service

Amtrak's Auto Train travels the rails of the southeastern U.S. on an 855-mile journey between Lorton, VA and Sanford, FL. Traveling in both directions daily, each train carries a maximum of 650 passengers and 330 cars. So, what's the experience like?  

Tip: Readers can read Part One of our first-hand look at the Auto Train, with details about benefits, check-in, boarding and accommodations. Here's Part Two of that first-hand look, covering service, beverages, dining, scenic viewing, disembarkation and retrieval of a vehicle.  

Attentive, Friendly Service 

Overall, we found Amtrak's service including the check-in process, boarding and several contacts with my dedicated Amtrak sleeping car attendant very positive. It has American-style friendly service—not formal European-style service, but very attentive.

Our steward introduced himself to us shortly after we boarded, explained how we could reach him and then presented us with menus for dinner and beverages (soft drinks, sodas, bottled water, wine and beer). 

Wine and Beer

In the Sleeper cars, the first glass of wine—either chardonnay or cabernet sauvignon—is complimentary. Bottles of wine and beers were available. Note: No cash is currently accepted in either stations or on Amtrak trains, given COVID-19 protocols. Be sure to bring a credit card or use the Amtrak mobile app, which is helpful in many ways.

The app additionally allows consumers to book from their phone, board with an e-ticket, receive boarding information through push notifications, check train status and, from the dining/beverage side, pay for any purchases with such digital wallet services as Apple Pay or Google Pay.

If riders are booked in Sleeper Car private accommodations, they also do have access to a lounge car. Amtrak also permits Sleeper Car guests to bring and consume their own private stock alcoholic beverages within the confines of their compartment—but not in public spaces, such as corridors or that lounge.

Dining on Auto Train 

As a guest in the Sleeper car, we were served dinner in our compartment, which was perfect from our perspective. We didn't have to circulate around the train and come in contact with others during this pandemic.

All private compartments on Amtrak also have access to a dedicated Dining Car. Seasonal menus offer a variety of entrees and a wide selection of beverages, including beer, wine and spirits for sale. Amtrak advises that customers desiring traditional dining service should make reservations; a member of the Dining Car staff will go through the train so the rider can select a preferred time for the meal. On our train, announcements were made for guests on a particular seating to come to the Dining Car.

Important Note: Traditional dining car service has been temporarily suspended on all routes except Auto Train. 

What was on the dinner menu? Entree choices during our journey included flat iron steak, garlic and herb cod or rigatoni pasta, accompanied by a small salad and dinner roll. Children’s entrees include a choice of chicken tenders or macaroni and cheese.

Amtrak recently upgraded its meats to include USDA Prime offerings. We picked the steak (tflatich was a tender Black Angus flat iron cut of meat with a tasty bourbon sauce, served with mashed potatoes and a vegetable medley. As for dessert, choices included New York-style cheesecake, vanilla ice cream and sugar-free Jello, plus a signature dessert.

Sleeper Car guests also receive continental breakfast prior to departure—although that was not delivered to our compartment, but in the Dining Car. 

Those traveling in Coach class can secure food and drinks for "take out" at the Cross Country Cafe car, a Coach-exclusive lounge. It offers hot and fresh meals, snacks and beverages including sodas, wine and beer, plus complimentary continental breakfast. 

One change? Normally Coach passengers are not allowed to take alcoholic drinks purchased in the cafe out of that car into any public area including the Coach passenger cars; however, now the cafe is "takeout-only," so they are permitted to take a glass of wine or beer back to their seat. 

Scenic Views

The AutoTrain departs one station at 4 p.m., and arrives at the other by 9 a.m. While it's not an all-day train, travelers typically have several daylight hours after boarding for scenic views in Virginia, as well as on the other end pre-arrival in central Florida.

Almost immediately after departing Lorton, the train crosses the river south of Occoquan, VA providing views of a marina and the yachts there, plus other river and lake views are along the route. 

One highlight for many onboard? The train crosses smack through the middle of Marine Corps Base Quantico near Triangle, VA. Military buffs or fans of the TV show "NCIS" will likely appreciate seeing the buildings and facilities. A bit further south, we admired the historic downtown, historic church spire and surrounding countryside of Fredericksburg, VA. Throughout the journey, train riders will see small towns and villages, lakes, country fields with livestock or crops, swamps and forests.  

Fall is also a lovely time to see Virginia's vibrantly colored foliage. We sipped on our glass of wine, pulled up messages on our phone and admired the scenic beauty unfolding outside. We mostly appreciated that we weren't driving hundreds of miles and would get a decent night’s sleep and arrive in Florida early the morning.

Be aware that both day and night, for safety’s sake, Amtrak Auto Train does sound its horn repeatedly when the train approaches some commercial areas and road crossings. We will say that on this trip—compared with others we've taken in the past—we barely heard the horn, given the distance of our Sleeper Car from the front of the train. 

Reaching Sanford

As morning emerges, the southbound train travels through Georgia and northern Florida, providing views of palmetto trees, lakes, swamps and birds. Over the P.A. system, guests are informed about their continental breakfast options and arrival time at Sanford.

As the train approaches the Sanford Auto Train station (see photo of the outside of the station above), riders are asked to remain in their seats and not gather downstairs. P.A. announcements tell riders when they can disembark.

As we waited, we opened the door to my Roomette and talked with a fellow solo rider in the Roomette across the corridor. Did she enjoy the train trip? A retired military veteran from the northeastern U.S., she said an emphatic "yes," noting that it was her first time taking Auto Train and she was surprised and that she slept well. She was traveling to her vacation home in northeastern Florida and would definitely take Auto Train again.  

Disembarking, it was nice to see that our steward had nicely retrieved carts for us on the outside platform. He wished us a good journey.  

Retrieving a Vehicle

Once riders get off the train, they'll have to wait for Amtrak to retrieve their vehicle from the train's vehicle carriers (see photo below). 

Getting the vehicles off these specialty rail cars (with several "layers" of vehicles stacked within those) is a finely honed practice. Multiple Auto Train workers drive the vehicles of the cars in a continuously flowing procession. They then drive to the front of the station, hop out, remove the door placards and adjust the vehicle's side mirrors. While the process seems quite efficient, with up to 330 cars to retrieve, the process can take several hours.

Tip: If travelers desire to get on the road as quickly as possible, they should purchase optional “priority offload" service. It can be purchased either at time of ticket purchase or later, but as it's capacity controlled, we always suggest purchasing it at the time of the original reservation/ticket purchase. 

How do riders know their car is ready? Hang onto the number that's written on the folder drivers are given at the kiosk check-in. Those numbers are announced over the PA system and posted on interior electronic boards when the vehicle is ready. 

Priority offload assures the vehicle will be among the first 30 vehicles offloaded; cost for this premium service during our trip was $65. That's in addition to the normal car ticket and passenger ticket charges. 

In Conclusion

We enjoyed my recent train ride and journey on Amtrak's Auto Train. It meant we could leave my friends' house in Pennsylvania one morning, drive 200-plus miles south to Lorton, VA, board the train, get a good night’s sleep and then arrive in central Florida the next morning. From there, we had another 250 miles to drive to my final destination in South Florida, arriving late afternoon. 

But in one-and-a-half days, we'd covered the amount of territory that might have normally taken me three days or more if we had been driving. It also was an easy experience, and avoided Interstate driving stress. 

We have no doubt we'll be back on Amtrak's AutoTrain when the next vacation up north beckons. For more information, visit www.amtrak.com.

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