All aboard the Auto Train: Amtrak takes riders, cars from Sanford, Florida, to D.C.

For all the fabled glory and hype surrounding the idea of a great American road trip, there are practical concerns to contend with — from the stress of battling traffic to bathroom stops and breakdowns.

One of Amtrak’s non-stop routes aims to satisfy the needs of snowbirds and tourists looking to save hundreds of miles of driving and the headaches of stressful, long hours on the road. The Auto Train is a direct route that runs between Sanford and Lorton, Virginia, just outside the nation’s capital. Trains leave each station at 5 p.m. daily and arrive at 10 a.m. the following morning.

For this unique rail experience, the company invites passengers to hand over their vehicles to Amtrak staff for loading onto one of 34 car carriers with a combined capacity of up to 350 cars, trucks, SUVs and motorcycles. Amtrak advertises that this route saves nearly 900 miles of driving.

“You can relax and enjoy a nice dinner while having the experience of a long-distance train. You can avoid traffic and stress on the road,” said Federico Gazzolo, Amtrak’s vice president of product development and customer analytics. “There’s a social aspect. Some customers say it’s magical eating on the train in a dining car so there are other positive aspects of this experience.”

The service began in 1971 with the Auto-Train Corporation, which Amtrak acquired in 1983 and has been running ever since. With four coaches and nine sleeping cars, the Auto Train transported 27,237 riders in March, welcoming more than 200,000 guests aboard in an average fiscal year.

While snowbirds make up a large portion of this route’s customer base, other reasons for riding include vacation or visiting family and friends. Some riders pack their personal vehicle and use the train to assist in moving to a new city.

On a northbound trip to see family in Pittsburgh and friends in Ohio and North Carolina, I had the chance to ride the Auto Train in late April. Though pricing varies based on demand and chosen options, the cost for my coach ticket and car totaled $437. I was traveling during a peak time, so the train was completely full.

Here’s what my 24-hour experience was like from arriving at the Sanford station to reuniting with my car just outside of Washington, D.C.

April 24

1 p.m. A friend had cautioned me that the line of vehicles arriving at the Sanford Auto Train Station could stretch around the block, so I was sure to arrive with plenty of time to spare. Though check-in begins at 12:30 p.m. (and closes at 3 p.m.), some guests arrive even earlier. I waited for about 45 minutes and checked in at the welcome booth around 1:45 p.m.

Amtrak personnel took video of my car from every angle, documenting existing scratches before I gave the keys to them and took my carry-on luggage into the station. A food truck was set up on-site for waiting passengers, who can watch from afar as cars are loaded onto the train. We got our boarding call around 3:30 p.m., creating a flurry of activity as riders searched for the correct car to board.

5 p.m. It took some time for the main train engine to couple all of the cars together, causing our coach to lose power for about 10 minutes while the train was assembled. With all of the cars combined, the length totals nearly a mile with around 50 train cars. Shortly after 5 p.m., we were on our way, crossing over the St. Johns River and passing by the future home of the DeLand SunRail station.

6 p.m. After an hour of getting settled into my coach seat and doing some work on my laptop, it seemed like a good time to venture to the café car, which has cheeseburgers, hot dogs, sandwiches and other light bites available à la carte. The “deluxe” stromboli and a Stone IPA seemed sufficient for a light dinner.

8 p.m. The dusk hours aboard the train featured a mix of working on my laptop and dozing off for short naps. Amtrak is planning a 5G upgrade for its onboard wifi in the next several months, but in most areas, the connection worked well enough for writing and browsing. It’s worth noting that there are power outlets next to the window seat.

9:30 p.m. Though it would have been tempting to get a private sleeper car, it wasn’t in the budget for this particular trip, and I got as comfortable as I could in my coach seat as the overhead lights turned off right near Walthourville, Georgia.

April 25

7:30 a.m. After hearing an announcement that the complimentary breakfast was available in the café, I ventured a few cars over to find a spread of fruit, coffee cake, cereal, milk, orange juice and coffee. I found a seat at a table with James Jones, who had plenty of fishing stories to share and had ridden the auto train an estimated 30 times, and Tom, who was heading north for a metric century bike ride with some friends.

8:56 a.m. Once passengers were awake, an Amtrak staff member would periodically talk on the PA system to note points of interest or pertinent updates.

11:15 a.m. After the train decoupled and placed the passenger cars in their correct spots at the station, I breathed my first breath of fresh air and stretched my legs outside after more than 18 hours of being cooped up on the train. While taking the Amtrak is much preferable to flying for that many hours in a row, I did feel a little stir-crazy by the end.

12:30 p.m. I had read online that most vehicles would be unloaded from the Auto Train within about an hour, which I had serious hopes of after the train was delayed in its arrival. While it’s possible to pay an extra $95 for priority unloading, I rolled the dice and hoped my car would be among the first handful off the train.

Despite the wait, the Amtrak Auto Train proved a worthwhile experience that I would consider again. It saved wear and tear on my car, gas and hours of stress on the road, allowing me to nap or do work instead of fighting traffic. Even though cars reign supreme in Florida and most parts of the country, Amtrak aims to double its ridership by 2040, and I would certainly welcome more train trips in the future.

The service began in 1971 with the Auto-Train Corporation, which Amtrak acquired in 1983 and has been running ever since. With four coaches and nine sleeping cars, the Auto Train transported 27,237 riders in March, welcoming more than 200,000 guests aboard in an average fiscal year.