After bidding vaya con Dios to Raquel and her sister, we made plans to meet my brother and his wife Carroll. After some negotiation we agreed to drive to their place and then go to an Outback Steakhouse for dinner. Carroll has recovered well from her major stroke last spring, but is still using a wheelchair to get around outside their home. Everything was going well at dinner until Jim suddenly announced that he was freezing, and went outside to sit in the car in an attempt to warm up. As a result our evening was somewhat cut short.

Even though it was indeed cold in the restaurant, the sudden chill was the harbinger of something more serious. After a bad night, Jim came close to collapsing at breakfast and I summoned 911. The response was almost immediate and they whisked him away to the nearby hospital ER. After several hours and multiple tests the verdict was: acute COVID.

The hospital discharged him with a prescription of Paxlovid and an admonition that we couldn't fly home as expected the following day. I no longer get non-refundable anything anymore, so I was able to cancel the flight without penalty and the hotel was able to accommodate us for another night. We decided the best way home would be to drive in easy stages so I contacted the rental car company and modified the agreement to drop the car off at the Charlottesville airport where we had left our car.

I then busied myself notifying all our friends and relations that they had been exposed to COVID (no one got sick -- even me), and called the dog boarding kennel to extend Koko's stay.

Jim had a terrible night, but the next morning the Paxlovid was taking effect and he felt better. In fact, he took the initiative to find and make a reservation for a private room on the Sunday Auto Train. That would enable us to get home a day sooner without the long drive and was comparably priced. We had taken it on a previous visit to Florida in 2021, and were happy to try it again. AND more than happy to avoid the drive and multiple hotel rooms on the way home.

Sanford Auto Train Station

The terminal in Lorton has a fanciful design with palm trees and other intimations of the tropics. The terminal in Sanford is much more matter-of-fact.

We arrived prior to the 12:30 time for checking in, so I took the opportunity to wander around taking pictures.

Once check-in starts, cars are assigned unique numbers and pull into one of the three bays to unload. Passengers take only what they will need overnight and leave the rest of their luggage in the car. Professional drivers then take over to sort cars and load them onto the special car carriers.

Rental car

Our little rental car waits patiently in line.

We wondered (briefly) whether there was any prohibition against taking a rental car on the Auto Train. A quick WWW search didn't turn up anything definitive and there was nothing in the rental agreement that said one way or another. Using the dictum I learned while working for the Army (If you think you might not like the answer, don't ask the question), we decided to go for it. The rental company already knew we would be returning the car to Charlottesville. They just didn't know how we would get there.

We trusted our own car to the train earlier, so we felt this little guy would be taken care of. It was.

Track Switch Stand

As a rail fan, I found many miscellaneous things of interest.

This switch moves the track points to route a train from one track to another. You can read more than you ever wanted to know about railroad switches at the link. The colors yellow and green are specifically used in a rail yard, not on the main tracks.

I noticed that the lock that would keep the switch from being thrown was lying on the ground. I was not tempted to see if the points could be moved. I didn't care to be ejected from the train.

An Amtrak switch engine is in the background, and an Amtrak locomotive is in the shed. The Auto Train maintenance yard is located in Sanford.

Train shuffling

In preparation for loading, additional cars were brought in. There must have been more people headed north than south on this day. This switch engine took four sleepers out of the rail yard and then brought them back.


The man standing in the vestibule had a control device that notified the engineer when to back up and how slowly. He communicated with a worker on the ground who monitored the approach to the existing cars in the station.

These double-decker Superliner II cars have their through passages on the upper level as can be seen here. Most of the sleeping compartments are on the upper level as well. The lower level contains specialty bedrooms, a few roomettes, luggage storage, and showers. Specific descriptions can be found at the link.

These tall cars were at one time limited to use only in the west, but bridges have been raised on the Auto Train route to allow passage of the car carriers and these double-decker sleepers.


Even though the cars came together verrrry sloooowly, there was still a jolt when they connected. It is clear why they do this work before putting passengers on the train.

The man on the ground is completing the coupling.

We were assigned bedroom A, which is not a desirable location. It is directly over the trucks, which makes for a rough ride. It is next to the passageway door between cars, which makes for a noisy ride. AND it loses some of its floor space to allow the passageway to bend around the sleeping rooms. No matter, we were glad to get it. According to the attendant, it was not supposed to be reserved, so he had stored excess luggage in it. I explained that we had made our reservation at the last minute. It was perhaps the last available room on the train.

Another disadvantage of the upper level bedrooms is a steep, narrow, twisty stairway to get there. I prefer the old single-level Pullman sleepers, but I'm sure these are more profitable.

Checking in

You check in your car first, then you check yourself in. Here's where you pick your dining car seating (6:00 or 8:00) or eating in your room (5:30). We chose the latter, of course.

Auto Train Waiting Room

The waiting room is basic. No 30th Street Station echo here! There were rest rooms, of course, and a small concession stand. A food truck was available outside "near the rails." We wondered if there was any place on the property that WASN'T "near the rails."

Announcements were all pre-recorded and had a feature that made us giggle. Almost every announcement ended with the phrase: "Thank you," pause, "kindly." "Thank you" would have sufficed. "Thank you kindly" would have been gracious. But the pause in the obviously mechanical voice between the "thank you" and the "kindly" gave the announcements a surreal touch.

We tucked into an out-of-the-way corner and positioned the luggage cart to enforce social distancing.

By the time the train began to load, this room was pretty full.


Finally the announcement came to load: first the coach cars (on the right) then the sleepers (on the left). The station at Sanford isn't long enough to hold the entire train, so it is broken into three sections, including the car carriers, and made up after loading.

The entire boarding process went so smoothly that the train was 45 minutes early leaving! We hoped that would give us a better change of getting to Lorton on time. Amtrak is at the mercy of the freight lines that are supposed to give passenger trains priority, but frequently don't. Numerous attempts to improve freight train safety and scheduling have not gone anywhere. The situation is bad enough that Amtrak has a dedicated page explaining the problem.

We did in fact arrive in Lorton early -- earlier than the Amtrak staff responsible for unloading the train! So much for our desire to get on the road and home early. In fact, our car was one of the last off the train. Fun fact: it takes almost an hour to unload the Auto Train.

Alas, the night spent crawling up and down and around the ladder to the upper bunk has convinced us that the romance of an overnight train trip is a thing of the past. Ah well!

Pictures of unloading at Lorton may be seen from our earlier Auto Train trip.

We were glad to get home. If you must be sick, home is far better than a hotel. It was still a couple of weeks before Jim completely fought off the infection, but we were lucky that Mary Ellena stayed healthy.

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