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Auto Train offers an alternative to driving to Florida

Thursday - 7/19/2012, 11:08am  ET

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The Auto Train makes its final stop in Sanford, Fla. (WTOP/Hank Silverberg)
  • Gallery: (6 images)

Hank Silverberg, wtop.com

LORTON, Va. - The Auto Train is one of the region's most unique forms of transportation, combining mass transit and America's love of the automobile.

WTOP's Hank Silverberg recently hopped on board what's billed as the longest passenger train in the world, taking the non-stop trip from Lorton, Va. to Sanford, Fla., the gateway to the big theme parks in nearby Orlando.

With the price of gas topping $3.40 a gallon and security hassles at the airport, the Auto Train is going strong, and taking it can be more fun, if you are not a light sleeper.

The train carries both drivers and their vehicles. On a recent Thursday, the train carried 146 vehicles and 328 passengers for the 19-hour, overnight trip. That day the train was three quarters of a mile long, but could have been longer.

One of Auto Train's advantages is that once the train starts, it doesn't make any stops until it reaches Sanford.

Passengers like Donna Calabrese from Long Island,N.Y., who has done the trip 12 times, swear by it.

"You get to see parts of the country you wouldn't see on a airplane," she said.

Her husband John, who was wearing closed headphones and was ready for a nap, was making his first trip. He says they planned to make several stops in Florida, and the Auto Train was much more convenient driving all the way there or flying and renting a car.

The cost in coach for two passengers to travel round-trip in coach is $1,023 on average, though that is subject to change. The price includes dinner and a continental breakfast the next morning.

A sleeping car costs riders an average of $332 to $564 on top of the round-trip ticket price, depending the number of people.

The trip takes you through some of America's oldest cities including Richmond, Va., Charleston, S.C. and Savannah, Ga., though most of the route is done at night when you can't see much.

Among the more interesting sites is the trip through Ashland, Va., where the train tracks run right along Main Street and through the campus of Randolph- Macon College.

The train does have a family atmosphere, but if you don't want to deal with crying babies, you can request an adults-only car.

Rhousi Shah of Ashburn, Va. was on the train with his wife Ricky and his three children, who are 5, 7 and 9.

He says they have driven and have stayed in the train's sleeping car before, but for this time, they chose coach.

"You can pack your car with as much stuff as you can pack in the car and not have to worry about baggage," Shah said.

As he colored and listened to an iPod, Shah's son, Dralan, 9, said he prefers traveling by train because he can move around.

Some travelers will tell you, the train is not an ideal ride for light sleepers.

Andrew Fernicola traveled down from New York to catch the train in Lorton, Va. because it's cheaper. But when WTOP asked him about sleeping, he said goes in the bar car.

"I hang out there," Fernicola said.

Just a few seats behind Fernicola was 16-year-old Andrew Goetzinger of Burke, Va. He said he does get bored on the long trip, and because he is tall and lanky, he has trouble sleeping in the seats. They don't recline all the way and the leg rests do not extend far enough to provide him real comfort.

The other obstacle to sleeping on the train is the noise. People are constantly moving around or opening the train's car doors to head to the lounge late at night.

The Auto Train leaves Lorton at 4 p.m., but you must have your vehicle there no later than 3 p.m. It pulls into Sanford at 9 a.m.

That is when some passengers get their only real surprise. It can take as long as two hours to unload all the cars, a hard wait to take for the people whose cars are the last off, after the 19-hour ride.

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)