I absolutely love taking the train. For me, it’s an incredibly relaxing way to avoid the rigors of long-distance auto travel, as well as the stress and anxiety associated with air travel with a wheelchair. Usually I’m treated to beautiful views out my large window, free Wi-Fi, good food, and plenty of time to catch up on some reading or little bit of work.
Most of my train travel has been in Europe, and while I have taken Amtrak trains several times prior to using a wheelchair, my experience with Amtrak as a full-time wheelchair user has been very limited. This is why I was so incredibly excited to win the Amtrak “Take Me There” contest earlier this year, and to be provided with the opportunity to share information about my experience on the overnight Auto Train from Sanford, Florida to Lorton, Virginia as a wheelchair user! Here’s more about my accessible adventure with Amtrak.
What the Auto Train is All About
The Amtrak Auto Train is an awesome way to transport your vehicle without having to drive or deal with the stress of traffic or having to stop to eat or get gas. The train has only two stopping and starting points: Sanford, Florida (about 30 minutes north of Orlando) and Lorton, Virginia (about 30 minutes south of Washington, DC). Depending on freight traffic, the trip takes approximately 17 to 18 hours each way, with only one stop in the middle of the night for 15 minutes in South Carolina to switch out crew members. In each direction, the train departs at 4:00 PM and arrives at roughly 9:00 AM the following day.
You can bring your automobile, van, SUV, truck, or motorcycles on the Auto Train with you, which means that your luggage is only limited to what you can fit inside your car. A limited number of spaces are available to carry small enclosed trailers, trailers for transporting boats, jet-skis, trikes (three-wheeled vehicles), sidecars, choppers, etc. Additional fees may apply for these vehicles. For all the details regarding the types of and specifications for vehicles that can go on the Auto Train, please CLICK HERE.
There are a few of different ways that wheelchair users can ride on the auto train: staying in your wheelchair in coach, transferring to a partially reclining coach seat and stowing your wheelchair, or sleeping in a private accessible compartment. I was provided with a sleeping compartment, so I’ll share my experience with that below.
How to Purchase an Auto Train Ticket as a Wheelchair User
To start the process of booking your Auto Train tickets, it’s best to first go to the Auto Train page on the Amtrak website HERE. On this page, you can see a map of the route, the train schedule, and get all sorts of more detailed information about the types of vehicles the train accepts, the accommodations, and more. The train only travels between Sanford, Florida and Lorton, Virginia, so your odds of booking the wrong train on the wrong route are slim to none.
After you click on BOOK AUTO TRAIN NOW, You’ll be taken to a page where you select your day to travel and the number and types of passengers who will be traveling. Here, you can select, for example, two people – a passenger with a disability and a companion for a passenger with a disability.
On the following page, you will be asked about the specifics of your mobility device and what your needs are for any physical assistance. Amtrak has limits on both the size and weight of wheelchairs allowed on board. Mobility devices can be no more than 30 inches wide, a maximum of 48 inches long, need to have ground clearance of 2 inches or more, and can weigh no more than 600 pounds, including the occupant. Both manual and power wheelchairs are welcome on board, and if you only need a wheelchair to help you board and disembark the train, manual chairs are available at the stations.
Once you make your mobility selections, you will be provided different price options for a coach wheelchair space for you, a reserved coach seat for your companion, or a Superliner Accessible Bedroom that the two of you can share. There is also an option for your companion to have their own Superliner Roomette if you both want more space.
Prices are going to vary based on the departure date. I chose the sample date of a Sanford departure on February 3 and a Lorton return date on February 10. If you choose to share the Superliner Accessible Bedroom, the subtotal for the compartment would be $686.70. You cannot ride the Auto Train unless you are bringing a vehicle with you, and the cost for a minivan like mine would be an additional $416.
You can also pay an additional $125 for priority vehicle offloading, which means that your vehicle will be one of the first 30 taken off the train at each stop. And you have the option of protecting your trip with Allianz travel insurance for $30 per traveler. Just as a sample fare, for this trip on these particular dates with a Superliner Accessible Bedroom, no priority vehicle offloading, and no travel insurance, the total cost for two people roundtrip would be $1102.70.
Arriving at the Station and Vehicle Check-in
Since I live only 15 minutes away from the Sanford Auto Train station, that was my first point of departure, and thus check-in. The latest you can check in is 2:30 PM, and the earliest you can arrive is 11:30 AM. For wheelchair users, 2:30 PM is way too late, as I was boarding the train at 2:15 PM. You can pay extra for priority vehicle boarding and unloading, but since I didn’t have that, I tried to arrive a little bit later having read that mayyyyybe the last vehicles on the train are the first ones to come off. I checked in at 1 PM, and I was fourth from last for unloading. So much for that theory! Although, there were relatively few people on my train, so it’s possible that most people arrived after I did.
The vehicle check-in and loading process works pretty much like a valet service. Because there are specific buttons to push with my accessible van, I printed out instructions for this and taped them to my steering wheel for the drivers. I also put my transfer seats in a position so they could drive the vehicle normally using the pedals. They never reached out to me for assistance, so I believe they had no problem driving my van on the train, then back off of it in Virginia. At check-in, they placed a magnets on the driver side door with a number on it. This is the number I would look for at pickup to claim my vehicle.
Once inside the terminal, I headed to the check-in desk. There, they gave me a pocket brochure with my vehicle number written on the front, and my boarding ticket and meal voucher on the inside. I was instructed to keep that with me so I would remember what number to look for on the screen in the Lorton terminal to retrieve my vehicle.
Bring as few belongings with you as humanly possible onto the train as space will be very limited. Passengers are permitted two carry-on bags not to exceed 28″ x 22″ x 14″, and 50 pounds each, as well as two personal items not to exceed 14″ x 11″ x 7″, and 25 pounds each. This being said, I did not see anyone measuring or weighing passenger bags. I think they pretty much know that the passengers are going to be the ones who pay the price for exceeding these limits with significantly reduced compartment space.
Boarding the Train
Wheelchair users in accessible compartments are the first to board, and I boarded 15 minutes before everyone else’s started so I could get comfortable. My cabin steward, affectionately known as Big Chris (he’s 6’7″), helped me board by using a lightweight metal ramp that the station had recently acquired. I definitely needed it to span the gap, but it’s the train itself was maybe only two or 3 inches higher than the actual platform.
After rolling onto the train, I made a left turn and went down a short hallway into my accessible compartment. A short while after boarding, Big Chris came to my compartment to give me the rundown on what the train ride would be like. He showed me every single feature in the compartment, took my meal order and asked me for my preferred meal delivery times, asked me when I wanted turn-down service, and showed me how to call him if I needed help or anything delivered to my compartment.
My Accessible Sleeping Compartment
My sleeping compartment on the Auto Train is called a Superliner Accessible Bedroom, and it’s designed for two people. They are at either end of the train car, so it takes up the entire width of the train with a window on each side. On one side are two seats that face each other, which lay flat to form the lower bunkbed. Right above it is a slightly narrower upper bunk bed that can be reached using two stairs embedded on the wall next to one of the seats.
On a panel next to one of the seats, you will find a light switch, one power outlet, the dials for the audio channels (1-announcements only, 2-Motown, 3-Blend), and a temperature control knob that I think doesn’t do anything. You will also find a cabin steward call button. In between the two seats is a folding table that pulls out. Each passenger is also provided with two bottles of water. There is only one electrical outlet for the entire compartment, so if you have major power needs, bring an extension cord or a power strip.
On the other side of the compartment is a sink with a mirror, and a toilet with grab bars. Both the toilet and the sink work in similar fashion to those found on an airplane with vacuum section. Amtrak provides several towels, washcloths, soap, toilet paper, and paper towels. There is no accessible shower available. There is a curtain you can use to separate the toilet compartment from the seating area, and there is a grab bar and two hangers on the wall behind the curtain.
You can request a specific time for turndown service between 7 PM and 9 PM. Each passenger is provided with two pillows, sheets on the bed, and a thin blanket. If you are picky about your pillows or get cold easily, you are free to bring your own pillow and/or blanket. Everyone is different, but I was totally okay with the pillows and blankets that Amtrak provided.
Space in my sleeping compartment was tight. Please take me seriously when I say this because many electric scooter users and larger rehab power wheelchair users who cannot take any steps will probably have a very tough time fitting in this compartment. For reference, my Whill Model Ci power chair is 39″ long and 23.5″ wide. This makes it almost exactly the same size as a standard manual wheelchair. I was able to turn around and maneuver in the compartment without having to open the door. However, it usually took multiple point turns in order to do this.
I took several measurements in the compartment to help you determine if it would work for you and your mobility device:
- Length of compartment (door to wall): 56″
- Length of seating area/bed: 78″
- Width of seats/bed: 28″
- Height of bed: 20″
- Overall width of compartment (window to window): 113″
- Width of floor space: 85″
- Space between seats: 22″
- Height of toilet: 18″
For a drawing of the room layout and all the specifics from the Amtrak website, please CLICK HERE.
The Passenger Experience
I had two very different experiences riding the auto train, as I had a professional companion on the way north and was completely alone on the way south. I brought a Kindle with me that was preloaded with several movies since I knew the Internet connection might be iffy, but I never had to use it. I spent pretty much my entire awake time chatting with my travel companion, since we both work in travel and really hit it off. Time passed quickly, and we were in Northern Virginia before we even realized it.
My trip back was very quiet and very relaxing. I had a ton of work to do, so from the moment I boarded the train to the time I disembarked, I was pretty much working during my waking hours. I loved that I had no television and some really relaxing music to listen to, despite there being only two channels in my compartment. I have a very comfortable power chair, but I preferred to transfer from my chair to one of the seats next to the window to work, to eat, and also to enjoy the view.
The earlier you arrive at the station for check-in, the more choices you have for your meal delivery, although I think that you can pretty much select any of the three times if you are in a wheelchair compartment. On the way north, I had dinner at 6 PM, and on the way south, I had dinner delivered at 7 PM. Because the train sometimes arrives early, they recommend having breakfast delivered no later than 7 AM and having your sleeping quarters stowed away shortly before that. I woke up at 6:30 AM both mornings.
My compartment stewards for both journeys were absolutely fantastic – Big Chris on the way north and Sam on the way south. I had a call button in my compartment that I could use for anything I needed them to bring me, including coffee, tea, water, or anything else.
Arrival and Vehicle Pickup
When we arrived in Lorton, Virginia, I disembarked the train the same way I got on — rolling over a sturdy metal ramp to bridge the gap between the train and the platform. From there, I just rolled it directly to the station terminal.
Once you arrive in the terminal, you have to wait for your vehicle to be unloaded from the train. There are screens next to the terminal exit that display the numbers on the magnets that are attached to your vehicle at the point of departure. Once your number appears on the screen, your vehicle is ready for pickup just outside the exit.
My car was unloaded about 40 minutes after we arrived, and was completely unharmed. Before you get in your vehicle, check to make sure that your rearview mirrors have been unfolded, as the crew will fold them back in wider vehicles to make sure they fit or don’t get snapped off during the loading process.
The Return Trip
I was lucky that my cabin steward on the northbound trip gave me a heads up to arrive early at the Lorton Auto Train station for my return trip. It’s October, which means that snowbird season is in full swing. He told me that the station gates don’t open until 11:30 AM, but that cars would start lining up as early as 10:30 AM. He also said the train would likely be fully booked with probably 90% senior citizens heading to Florida for the season.
Thanks to a minor traffic delay, I arrived at the station in Lorton at 11:30 AM, and there were already probably 30 cars in front of me. However, I didn’t wait in line for very long, and while the station was already filled with people, the check-in process didn’t take more than 10 minutes. The boarding process was identical to the one in Sanford, and my train compartment was also identical, albeit in a different train car.
The southbound scenery was really nice heading into sunset since we were driving through Virginia and passed over the James River. We caught a little bit of it on the morning that we arrived, but I definitely preferred my views out the window heading south.
General Observations and Things Wheelchair Users Should Know
Passengers in general and wheelchair users specifically on the Auto Train should know that the train moves a LOT. Please note that the majority of the more severe movement is lateral, or from side to side of the train. If you have a very limited upper body control, make sure that you are strapped securely to your chair to prevent any unwanted shifting of your body. If you choose to stay in your chair for at least part of the ride, I would position your chair to face either the front of the train to the back of the train for the most secure position. Please take extra care when transferring or being transferred to and from the toilet and/or seat and/or bed. The train slows down every so often, usually when passing through a bigger town or busy intersection. If you can, take advantage of this to make your transfers.
I can’t speak to the level of noise in the coach section of the train. In my compartment, the noise was not any louder than what you would hear on an airplane. If you are a very light sleeper, feel free to use earplugs, or even take a sleeping aid if you think that the train movement will interfere with your sleep. Please take note that you will physically be jostled around a lot at night. If you have a partner or companion or family member sleeping on the top bunk, there are safety belts for them to use.
There is free Wi-Fi on the Auto Train. However, the speed and quality varies and sometimes you’ll get dead spots when passing through more rural areas. My Wi-Fi access was pretty good on the northbound trip, but nonexistent on the southbound trip. Plan on using your data for Internet access sometimes, or as a mobile hotspot as needed. I just downloaded a bunch of movies onto my Kindle using my Wi-Fi at home before I left since I knew streaming wouldn’t be an option.
The Auto Train has two levels, and both the lounge car and the dining car are located on the second level. There is no elevator access, so you will basically be confined to your accessible sleeper compartment for the duration of the trip. That being said, the customer service on the train is absolutely amazing, and my incredible cabin steward brought me anything and everything that I needed, including my meals. All I had to do was press my steward call button and he would come right away. I actually really enjoyed the privacy, as it was extremely quiet in the hallway, and I could barely hear when my fellow passengers used the bathrooms down the hall.
Bring as little with you on board the train as possible. As I mentioned earlier, space is very tight. It would be ideal if you could keep it to a backpack or small duffel bag. The more room you take up with your stuff, the less room there is for you to maneuver in your chair. I also recommend that you either bring some snacks from home or buy some snacks at the small convenience store inside the terminal. Hot drinks and water are available for you at any time, but you won’t be able to buy anything to eat in between meals in case you get hungry.
Speaking of food, my dinner was delicious. With the exception of the lasagna, dinner meals are cooked to order. I had salmon with a lemony cream sauce, wild rice, and mixed vegetables. This came with a small side salad and warm bread rolls. I was expecting airplane-quality food, so I was pleasantly surprised at how good it was. Breakfast was continental, which was two small bagels (lightly toasted) with butter and jam, a banana, and packaged coffee cake. You also get juice and/or coffee/tea.
I was incredibly impressed with Amtrak’s customer service at every point in my journey. From the employees and the station manager at the terminal to my personal cabin steward and others that I spoke with to the people driving my car onto and off the train, I was greeted with nothing but warmth and friendliness. Albert, the Auto Train Operations Supervisor, makes it a point to try and visit with every train passenger, and I saw him twice on the train and once in the station after our arrival in Virginia. I’m confident that Amtrak will take very good care of you on the Auto Train.
Overall, I really enjoyed my experience on the Auto Train. Despite the significant train movement, I found it to be relaxing, and I loved the privacy of my own compartment without any interruptions by my fellow passengers. Probably the best part was how easy the whole thing was. The entire process is very efficiently run, and unlike an airport, I didn’t have to worry about long checkout lines or going through an invasive security screening (the stations do have police officers with canine units and security cameras).
It was also amazing to have my own wheelchair accessible van with me in a shorter amount of time than it would have taken me to drive to Northern Virginia by myself. Because of spasticity in my legs and overall stiffness in my body if I’m in the same position for too long, I generally prefer not to drive more than five hours in a day. With this schedule, it would have taken me three days to reach the Washington, DC area from Central Florida. Admittedly, I did not sleep well on the train because of all the movement. However, at least I was comfortable and my body wasn’t sore and tired from three days of driving in a car, or stressed out from the anxiety of traffic and construction.
Most importantly, I didn’t have to worry about my wheelchair getting damaged or lost. I also wasn’t limited to only what I could carry with me, as I could put souvenirs or extra bags or pretty much anything in my minivan for storage. Hopefully this is an experience that will also work for you, and I can’t wait to hear all about it!
As an #AmtrakTakeMeThere contest winner and Amtrak Ambassador, my round-trip ticket on the Auto Train and financial compensation for expenses were provided to me by Amtrak. All of the information in this post is factual and based on my firsthand experience as an Auto Train passenger, both to provide Amtrak with feedback and potential passengers with information about train accessibility.