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TAKE THE A-TRAIN

SANFORD, Fla. — SANFORD, Fla. -- speck in the center of the state known for its sunshine, Sanford is close to Orlando, Fla., and near Daytona but far away from both. Its downtown is a tangle of gas stations, fast-food joints and bait shops. It has a Main Street and a few prettily named thoroughfares such as Persimmon, Mulberry and Tangerine.

Sanford also boasts an international airport, but it's better known for its trains -- well, one train in particular. It's here that you will find Amtrak's Auto Train station tucked into what appears to be a small neighborhood. That is if you don't miss it. (The signs leading visitors to the station are a bit faded. Kind of like the perennially struggling Amtrak.)

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With a maze of tracks and numerous cavernous rail cars, many looking abandoned, you won't mistake this station in rural central Florida for more than it is: A busy outpost of interstate-weary travelers who either have too much stuff to take on a plane or are deeply in love with their cars. And let's not forget those train enthusiasts who love to ride the rails or those who are afraid of flying.

Two Auto Trains travel daily between Lorton, Va., and Sanford, Fla. One train is southbound and the other northbound. The only requirement to take the train is that you bring a vehicle. Most people bring a lot more.

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There are families with kids -- the Auto Train departs less than 50 miles from Walt Disney World and is a well-used option for those headed to the amusement park mecca. There are retired couples -- the train is popular with the snowbird crowd -- and young couples. There are also a few motorcycle riders with their shiny, chrome two-wheelers. There are, however, no pets. They're not allowed.

My husband and I arrived without tickets so we had to park and see the ticket agent first. The colorful poster behind the ticket counter promised a new Auto Train station of the future with a wall of shiny windows and angles of sophistication. Coming soon. But not too soon, considering Amtrak's financial woes and Congress' reluctance to fully fund the nation's railroad.

The customer service was quick and efficient, assigning us seats and a dinner schedule. The dinner menu was displayed prominently at the desk, whether to whet the appetite or dampen the anticipation for Choo Choo Chewies -- a type of chicken fingers popular with the younger set -- could not be determined. The Auto Train typically offers three dinner seatings -- 5:30 p.m., 7:30 p.m. and 9 p.m. But this train isn't fully booked so there will only be two seatings. Usually kids eat early so we chose the later dinner time.

With our ticket and boarding pass in hand, we dropped off the car -- leave the key in the ignition, please -- and were assigned a vehicle number. Among the papers we received was a warning not to leave valuables in the car. Since passengers cannot access the cars during the trip, we wondered who's going to bother our belongings. It's a bit disturbing for Amtrak to advertise that it doesn't trust its employees, but we had only a few coins in the tray so we left them. We placed our suitcases in the back seat and were off.

The all aboard had already sounded as we climbed the stairs to our seats. Passengers can board up to two hours before the train's scheduled departure at 4 p.m. The train car was very clean -- immaculate, even -- with pillows and blankets arranged neatly in the overhead bin above each seat. As I took my seat, I overheard a fellow passenger ask if the train was on time. She was worried because last time she took the Auto Train it left four hours late. Despite that, she was back again and was assured the train would move out on schedule.

And so it did. By 3:30 p.m., the passenger cars were being smoothly connected to the auto carriers and within 30 minutes or so we were rolling northward, the late afternoon sun shining brightly through the big picture windows.

The Auto Train bills itself as the world's longest train, often stretching for more than half a mile. On this day, there were 17 passenger cars, 28 auto carriers, two conductors, two engineers and 28 crew members, according to Ginger, the onboard service director, who announced this information over the intercom. There would be a midnight stop in Florence, S.C., to change crews, refuel and take on clean water.

Riding the rails

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Don't take the Auto Train for the scenery. Sure, there are grassy flats of land, lakes, rivers, swamps, forests of pine, acres of cabbage palms and pastures full of cows. But there are also cement mixing plants, power generating plants, concrete graveyards and curiously, a circus. Well, I did spot a few Cole Bros. Circus trailers that were either abandoned or in deep storage. Alas, I did not see a tiger or elephant.

The other reason not to count on being entertained by the scenery is the Auto Train does most of its 855-mile route overnight, in the dark. During our trip in December, the sun began to fade not long after we left the station. A summer journey adds a few more hours of sunlight, but not enough to make a huge difference.

Now, if you happen to catch a fiery sunset from a beautiful river bridge, as we did, that may be all the scenery that's required.

When the sight of the trees racing by no longer entertains -- and it won't be long for some people -- take a stroll to the lounge car. It's here that you can play cards, board games or grab a free snack. Amtrak shows a movie twice in the evening in the lounge.

On a previous visit, the air was heavy with smoke and we had to forgo the movie. This time, thanks to Amtrak's recent ban on smoking, the air was clean as we sat down to watch Red Eye, a thriller about a woman who is terrified by a stranger on a flight from Los Angeles to Miami. Perhaps the movie choice was the railroad's attempt to poke fun at the horrors of air travel and remind passengers that they could be having a completely different kind of overnight travel experience.

If personal entertainment is more your style, Amtrak has recently introduced the digEplayer. The portable device, available for rental for less than $20, comes fully loaded with enough movies, TV shows and games to entertain even the most fidgety traveler. You can stay up all night watching every movie that's listed.

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But first, you'll want to have dinner.

Dinner is served

A glass carafe of white wine, a plastic flower and a cloth napkin set the mood at each table in the dining car. Be prepared to sit with people you don't know since Amtrak seats four to a table. We were a little late for seating so we were left to entertain ourselves. Our waiter helped us out in that department by singing. I'm sure he thought it was entertaining but I was uncertain.

One thing I am certain of is that the food was better than I expected and pretty good for a meal on wheels. The menu offered a choice of turkey and dressing, broiled fish with rice pilaf, vegetable lasagna or sirloin tips. Our dinner was served quickly and efficiently and followed by a dessert of apple pie or cheesecake. Coffee and tea are included but not soft drinks. When I asked for a Pepsi our waiter offered to go to the lounge car to get it but he would need some cash. He returned shortly with a glass of ice, soda and my change.

We left a tip for the server but there are no directions about this sort of thing. We noticed some people tipped and others did not.

After dinner, most passengers seemed to settle into their seats for the evening. If you're heading north, ask to be seated on the right side of the aisle. The auto train passes several freight trains throughout the trip, mostly on the left side of the train. It's very loud and jarring when it happens in the middle of the night, especially if you are leaning your head against the window.

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You'll also want a seat that's not too close to the sliding doors that connect each rail car. That way you won't have the noise of people going back and forth. And don't sit too close to the stairs that lead to the bathroom. The sound of the footsteps of various people trooping up and down all night is not conducive to sleep.

The coach seats recline and have large leg rests and generous space between rows for those who are long of limb. They are also wider than regular train seats, providing more room for tossing and turning. But I did notice that passengers tended to spread out to available seats to make sleeping easier.

Of course if it's sleep you really want, Amtrak offers an upgrade to a sleeper cabin called a Superliner Bedroom. These rooms feature convertible beds in a private compartment, some with showers. There's also a family option that sleeps up to four people as well as a deluxe version that includes an armchair.

Welcome to Virginia

Daylight arrived not as quickly as I would have liked. Breakfast was available in the lounge car -- continental style. But we were too busy standing in line for the bathroom to bother about eating.

When we pulled into Lorton, it was cloudy, gray and drizzling, but the train was on time. It took only minutes before we were allowed to depart the train.

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Amtrak says that the boarding platform here, which spans 1,480 feet, is longer than the Sears tower is tall. But it's inside the station that Amtrak reaches new heights.

It was immediately clear that the future had arrived there. The Virginia station was newer, brighter and much more spacious than the Florida version. The gift shop was larger and the bathrooms were bigger.

The service was still efficient and within a few minutes we heard an announcement about missing items that had been recovered on the train. Then another announcement about the weather, which had apparently delayed an employee who was integral to the unloading of the vehicles. That meant there would be an additional wait before travelers could continue on their journey.

So much for being on time. Thing is, no one seemed to mind. Most people waited inside the terminal, but a few antsy passengers gathered outside at the loading ramp, eager for their vehicle number to be called.

About 25 minutes later, the first car came zooming up to the waiting ramp. The cars are unloaded in random order and depending on the number of passengers and the whims of fate, you can wait minutes or hours for your vehicle to arrive. There are several Amtrak employees delivering the cars so they do not arrive one at a time, but come in batches and with some zip. The loading of passengers and stuff into the cars takes the bulk of time.

Our car was the second off the train. We felt a little giddy with our luck. We checked our belongings and everything was still in place. Not a penny was missing from the coin tray.

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In less than 18 hours, we had traveled through five states and not put a single mile on the car.

michelle.deal@baltsun.com

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Southbound -- Departs from 8006 Lorton Road, Lorton, Va. From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 south. Follow around the Capital Beltway and continue south toward Richmond. Take the VA-642 Exit 163 to Lorton. Turn left at Lorton Road. Turn right at Gunston Cove Road.

Northbound -- Departs from 600 Persimmon Ave., Sanford, Fla. From Orlando, take I-4 east toward Daytona. Take the SR-417-TOLL/SR-46 exit 101BC to Mount Dora/Sanford. Turn right at W. First Street. Continue on SR-46 east to North Persimmon Avenue. Turn right and go less than half a mile to the station.

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CHECK IN

Automobiles must check in at least an hour before the 4 p.m. departure time. Larger vehicles and motorcycles must be check in at least two hours before departure.

TICKETS

Prices vary depending upon the season and availability. Spring and fall are busy times because of all the snowbirds heading back and forth to Florida. Recent fares included: A reserved coach seat fare from $133-$166. Charges for automobiles (less than 65 inches in height) begin at $364. Oversize vehicles, such as SUVs and minivans, begin at about $746. Motorcycles start at $275.

Amtrak allows a limited amount of space for jet skis, trailers and other items, but travelers must call ahead. All meals and some snacks are included in ticket prices.

For those seeking more privacy and comfort, the Superliner Roomette, ideal for two, begins at about $330 per person. Larger family bedrooms, suitable for four, are also available, as is a bedroom for two.

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Look for specials and discounts (available for AAA members). For example, Amtrak is running a promotion through the end of this month that allows two kids (ages 2-15) to ride free with each paying adult. Ask for promotion code H608.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

Southbound -- Departs from 8006 Lorton Road, Lorton, Va. From Baltimore, take Interstate 95 south. Follow around the Capital Beltway and continue south toward Richmond. Take the VA-642 Exit 163 to Lorton. Turn left at Lorton Road. Turn right at Gunston Cove Road.

Northbound -- Departs from 600 Persimmon Ave., Sanford, Fla. From Orlando, take I-4 east toward Daytona. Take the SR-417-TOLL/SR-46 exit 101BC to Mount Dora/Sanford. Turn right at W. First Street. Continue on SR-46 east to North Persimmon Avenue. Turn right and go less than half a mile to the station.

CHECK IN

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Automobiles must check in at least an hour before the 4 p.m. departure time. Larger vehicles and motorcycles must be check in at least two hours before departure.

TICKETS

Prices vary depending upon the season and availability. Spring and fall are busy times because of all the snowbirds heading back and forth to Florida. Recent fares included: A reserved coach seat fare from $133-$166. Charges for automobiles (less than 65 inches in height) begin at $364. Oversize vehicles, such as SUVs and minivans, begin at about $746. Motorcycles start at $275.

Amtrak allows a limited amount of space for jet skis, trailers and other items, but travelers must call ahead. All meals and some snacks are included in ticket prices.

For those seeking more privacy and comfort, the Superliner Roomette, ideal for two, begins at about $330 per person. Larger family bedrooms, suitable for four, are also available, as is a bedroom for two.

Look for specials and discounts (available for AAA members). For example, Amtrak is running a promotion through the end of this month that allows two kids (ages 2-15) to ride free with each paying adult. Ask for promotion code H608.

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INFORMATION

Call 800-USA-RAIL or visit amtrak.com.

[MICHELLE DEAL-ZIMMERMAN]


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