Friday, October 22, 2010

The Auto Train

My escape route from the riepe fastness in the endless blind cul-de-sacs of East Goshen involved sticking my motorcycle on the train, a service that used to be provided by private enterprise, but unfortunately free market capitalism failed to do the job and the US government's rail service stepped in and is doing fine work up and down the east coast.riepe yanked me out of bed at some ungodly hour and dragged me screaming into the kitchen where Atticus gnawed on my extremities and stiffie poured cups of hot coffee down my throat. There's rain in the forecast they crowed as I tried to crawl back under the covers. It did what it hadn't done so far on the trip- it poured cats and dogs buckets of cold hard rain from about the time we arrived at I-95 inside Maryland. When I say "we" I mean riepe showed me the way through the back roads from the comfort of Leslie's heated SUV while I flailed around trying not to get run over outside by enthusiastic government workers hurrying to their jobs (they couldn't have been private sector workers as they have all been fired, I'm told). My journey down I-95 was two hours of epic bloody hell. I have no pictures as the rain was coming down so hard I couldn't see literally anything. My visor fogged up, my glasses fogged up, the whole world fogged up as the rain came pelting down. Government largesse meant road works as quantitative easing is employing people to repair crumbling roads in anticipation of major gas price hikes in 2012 when economists predict oil output will fail to meet increasing third world demand. That was a problem for the future, as there and then I had my hands full on the Highway To Hell. The rainwater was brown and sludgy and the trucks threw up ponds of it into my face. Then the Bonneville started backfiring and I thought I was toast. I noticed the left cylinder was getting wet so I deduced it was a spark issue and not a fuel issue so I fiddled with the spark plug cap on the left cylinder as we farted along at 65 miles per hour, and miraculously my Bonneville shook off the last of riepe's evil influence and took up running as sweetly as ever once again. I passed through the I-95 tunnel near Baltimore (I think) and the toll lady took my $2 with a look of intense pity on her face. I thought for a second she was going to raise her shirt to cheer me on my way but then I understood I was hallucinating and riepe's evil influence hadn't quite melted away entirely. "Be strong," she said and with her words ringing in my ears I plunged into the tunnel. Coming out the other side the raid was still hammering down, worse than ever. It was once again 55 degrees and freezing cold but fortified by my stay with riepe, and terrified of having to go back with my tail between my legs, we soldiered on my Bonneville and I. And finally we arrived at the Auto Train Depot in Lorton, Virginia, some ten miles south of the District of Columbia.The motorcycle loading area is a separate staging ground, completely exposed to the weather, which was an absolute joy in the conditions. I was the first motorcycle to arrive so I rode up onto the wooden loading ramp and waited for a second machine to arrive. I bundled my wet clothes into a garbage bag I carried for just emergencies on the road, and strapped it onto the seat next to my soggy ballistic mesh riding suit. When a Harley (what else?) pulled up alongside me they rolled us from the wooden ramp onto the motorcycle trailers like this: I stuffed my helmet and waterproof jacket into my top case and scuttled for cover in the dry clothes I had put on in the loo inside the train station. Official details about riding the train can be found here:
What I did was show up at the entrance, they found my name on a reservation list and they told me to go in. Inside the station I lined up at the ticket booth and they found my name and gave me a boarding pass and asked what time I wanted dinner (which is included in the ticket price) and I never had to show ID or anything. It was dead simple. I made my reservation with a credit card two weeks before and the cost for bike and myself was $260 or thereabouts, one way.
17 motorcycles were scheduled to ride but in the end one guy fell off on the way to the train and had to bag the trip so 16 eventually showed up to travel to Orlando overnight.

While motorcyclists fumbled around in the rain car drivers got to pull up under the shelter, take their over night bag and amble into the waiting while an Amtrak worker put a plastic cover on the driver's seat and assigned the vehicle a number before driving it onto the covered car carriages. It was still raining cats and dogs.Loading starts at 11am and the last motorcycle can arrive by 2pm, the last car (which is easier to load) by 3pm. The train leaves around 3:45pm and travels on CSX freight tracks so delays can occur though our train arrived in Orlando 20 minutes early at 9:10 the next morning (another sign of government inefficiency and bumbling no doubt!). The motorcycle carriers have channels for the tires and racks to hold the front wheels. The motorcycles are strapped down by their forks and at the rear wheels. Amtrak will transport weird shaped bikes and trikes but you have to sign a waver for them. No pets anywhere and no access to the vehicles en route are the rules. Car occupants left their vehicles in the hands of the Amtrak employees to load them and bike riders got to do the same after they helped load the bikes onto the trailers.Then the bike trailers were towed into the car carrier carriages.All vehicles loaded onto the train are videotaped to avoid accusations that the train caused existing damage.

I bought a sandwich and a coffee at the cafeteria and news stand inside the station and waited for the word to board the train, which when it travels southbound is numbered 53. I was in carriage 10, seat 66.
I was at the front of the carriage, upstairs, and ended up with two seats to myself like my neighbor across the aisle. The seats lean back like airliner seats. Finally the rain stopped, the sun came out and we hooked up the car carriers to the back of the train and took off exactly on time, per government inefficiency regulations. I wandered down four carriages to the lounge car and picked up a couple of free coffees (the samovar is available all night for tea coffee cocoa and all the condiments) and a five dollar bottle of wine. Alcohol is free I am told in the sleeper carriages.
I had a book I was looking forward to reading The English Assassin and indeed I finished it just as I was waiting to pick up the Bonneville in the morning. Riding the rails is an excellent way to relax and enjoy the passing scenery.Cell phones work with occasional dropped calls. Seats are equipped with a 120v plug for people who need electrons to while the trip away. Quiet time starts at 9pm when you are supposed to use headphones.
I spent some time standing downstairs outside the toilets where I got an unobstructed view to the west at sunset. Most of the viewing from the windows was rather dull as the rail line runs through woods and down embankments.
Around 11 o'clock at night we arrived in Florence, South Carolina where the train stopped to refuel from a couple of tanker trucks and some personnel got off the train in a shift change. Auto Train staff live in Virginia and complete round trips home, rather than stying in Orlando, poor things.
Dinner was served at 5 7 and 9 pm and consisted of meat, chicken fish or vegetarian choices with cheesecake or a brownie for dessert and as much sweet white boxed wine as you could drink. They seat you as you come and I sat with three not terribly interesting strangers but the food was okay and had I wanted to stretch out the entertainment there was a movie showing after dinner in the lounge car. Smokers apparently have a small smoking compartment downstairs in the lounge car. I picked up some free cookies and took a coffee back to my seat for more reading. My only complaint was the reading lights were rather feeble and a book light would have been useful. There is a water fountain in the carriage and I found the amenities to be very efficient.
Breakfast starts at 6, I was awake at 5 after a restless night and I made my way to the lounge car to read in some decent light with a cup of coffee. When the restaurant car opened at 6 the snow birds, reminiscent of the woolly heads who invade Florida in winter were eagerly lined up to get first seating at breakfast. The tables had cereal hot muffins and bagels and assorted jams and spreads. The staff came by with hot drinks and conversation was much as the night before. I retreated to the lounge car with my muffin and book and made myself more free coffee.By now we were in North Florida and after 7am the speaker system started announcing our location and Danny, a disembodied voice with a decidedly whiny drawl kept trying to herd people into the dining car before it was too late with constant repetitions of that irritating phrase "at this time." Deaths were piling up across Europe in my book and his mangling of the English language was a minor irritant.
The morning conversation among the leather clad pirates in the carriage was about biketoberfest or some such event in Daytona and the banter was a clear symptom of their excitement finding themselves finally in the Sunshine State. Once the crew allowed us to "de-train" there was a mad rush to disembark and suddenly the Auto Train ride was over 18 hours after it started. I ambled off, last to leave, figuring there was no rush as we had to get our vehicles next.It was sunny and warm and gloriously dry outside the station. Car drivers stood around waiting for their cages and much to my surprise the motorcycles were off loaded equally fast, as the literature says they usually come off last.Sanford, just north of Orlando and about 30 miles down I-4 from the Turnpike was where we had landed. The arrival of the cars sounded like a bingo came as they called out the numbers for the waiting drivers. Motorcyclists met their rides on the trailers and rolled them off onto the wooden ramp before parking and sorting out their gear for the ride away. I was out of there by 10:15. My riding gear was rather soggy and nasty but a couple of hours in the hair dryer warmth of Central Florida and everything was dry and comfortable once again.
The Auto Train was an excellent adventure and when my wife and I go together we will take the sleeping car and ride in style. I was home by 6pm and Cheyenne was as overjoyed to see me as I was her.