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Ted's House - Motorcycle Trip Reports
Autotrain to Daytona, 1997

Fast Train To Daytona
My Autotrain Trip to Daytona, 1997
by Ted Verrill

I decided to take up George Young on his offer of splitting a hotel room in Daytona the minute Bill Shaw told me he could get great tickets to the Daytona 200 motorcycle race. After reading Steve Anderson's article on the Autotrain last year I decided that would be a great way to arrive in Florida and gave them a call at their 1-800-USA RAILS number. (They also have a website at $185 later I had a ticket leaving Lorton, Virginia on Tuesday, March 4th, arriving in Sanford Florida around 9:00am the next morning. I decided to ride back as I was quoted a price of over $300 for the return trip. I later came to find out that the ticket prices vary widely and that several of the riders who had made reservations just days before me had obtained a $455 round trip rate. As always, I guess it pays to plan early. One thing to note is that Amtrak will apparently take a reservation and credit card number, then hold the ticket for you at the station. If you don't pick up the ticket, they don't charge your card.

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The pallettes are made from lightweight aluminum and while flimsy looking are actually quite sturdy. The Amtrak loading specialists guide the rider onto the pallette and into one of the two grooves. The rider then assists in the tie-down process whereby the bike is secured to the pallette with 4 tie-downs (two front, two rear) that fully compress the suspension and securely immobilize the bike.

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The riders test the bikes to make sure they are securely fastened to the pallette, and it is loaded into the train.

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Lastly, everyone pitches in to secure the pallette to the car and say goodbye to their bikes for the next 24 hours.

After sending off the requisite "I am out of the office" e-mails, I hopped on the bike and headed south on I-395 through the cold drizzle in order to get to the Lorton Amtrak station before the 2:30 deadline for loading motorcycles. I arrived a little after two to find myself the first arrival. Apparently Amtrak has fine tuned the motorcycle carriers since the inaugural ride and the process of loading a motorcycle now takes all of 5 minutes. At the direction of Juan, the "chief motorcycle loader," I rode the bike into one of the two parallel tire grooves located on each aluminum pallet. When the bike hit the wheelstop placed in the track by Juan, two helpers immediately threaded lockdown straps through the upper fork triple clamp and tightened them until the front forks were fully compressed. A third helper then inserted a strap through the rear wheel and tighten that down. In minutes my bike was fully immobilized and ready to go.

At this point several Harley Davidsons arrived and were quickly loaded, four to a pallet. There used to be an arm of some type that would push down on the seat, but it was apparently abandoned as expensive and burdensome overkill. As three more bikes joined my pallet, I stood back to watch the riders frantically try to guide the handlers and their tie-downs around various bits of chrome and feverishly insert pieces of terrycloth between the straps and the bikes. When loaded, the bikes appeared perilously close together. The handlers were like old pros however, skillfully loading the larger touring bikes alongside the smaller cruising bikes and cinching the bikes down such that an atomic blast would have a problem moving them.

I boarded the train and quickly settled in while the eleven other riders on the train took their seats in front of and behind me such that we had half of a car entirely to ourselves. coincidence? Luckily the generous overhead storage was perfectly sized for a motorcycle helmet, a multivario tank bag and a knapsack. I noticed that the older riders in the front of the car immediately started gathering pillows and blankets and looking at the seat in which I would spend the next 20 hours I decided to do the same.

The train is supposed to leave the station at 4:30pm, but it seemed closer to 5:00 as the train must be assembled before it can start the journey south. Because the train is literally the longest passenger train in the world when put together, it must be broken down to fit in the station. The railroad cars holding the automobiles, trucks and motorcycles are lined up in one part of the station, and the passenger cars are split in several places and lined alongside each other on parallel tracks. As the train takes shape, your hopes soar for the start of the journey as you move along the track outside the station only to stop while more cars are added. A shuddering "thunk" signals success and the train moves slowly forward another few hundred yards then stops again for more additions. After about thirty minutes of this, the train rolls south and the journey has begun. If you like looking at trees, sit on the right side of the train, the left is reserved for those who enjoy the scenic expanse of the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay. While the abandoned manufacturing yards and military bases are interesting, the real show is counting the odd things found on the side of the track. I started writing things down, and had listed a complete toilet, a motorcycle, a fiberglass rowboat, countless appliances, a golf bag, a pig, and a stand-up electric hairdryer before I fell into a light sleep.

I awoke to a beautiful sunset and a porter walking through the cars announcing the first serving of dinner. I had planned to eat quickly then sleep the rest of the way so I ambled down to the dining car and was seated with two other riders (coincidence?) Over tales of the expense of Harley Davidson aftermarket accessories I enjoyed a surprisingly delicious dinner of "Chicken Amtrak Style" which, after seeing chickens among other strange things along the track in Florida the next morning, I decided not to ask about. After finishing off the complimentary white wine we three riders ambled back to "our" car. At around 9:00pm, just as I was growing bored of my books and of looking out the window at countless fast-food places, we popped right into the middle of Rocky Mount, NC. The train literally rolls right down Main Street. While Rocky Mount must have been a magnificent small town in its heyday, time and a shrinking populace had obviously taken its toll. I drifted off into a deep sleep to the rhythmic thrumming of the train (accented by an occasional train whistle.) It was as deep a sleep as you would imagine it to be.

I awoke Wednesday morning at 6:00am while simultaneously the sun broke over the horizon and people started to move back to the meal car for a light continental breakfast. After that first cup of coffee I suddenly realized that the sun was out and there were leaves on the trees, palm trees! After staring out the window for an hour or so I noticed we were pulling into the station at Sanford, Florida.

We quickly exited the train and began the hunt for the bike pallets. Unfortunately the pallets are among the last to be unloaded, but when they were finally pulled out of the train a new set of handlers quickly had the bikes unstrapped and ready to roll. It was simply a matter of sitting on the bike while they released the straps, then riding the bike right off of the pallet. I made the short hop to Daytona in no time and found myself in the middle of the 1997 Bike Week rested and rearing to go.

Would I do it again? Of course! I arrived in Daytona fully rested and ready to go. While the seat was not the most comfortable thing on which I have ever slept, it had a fully adjustable and generously-sized footrest and reclined much further than expected. The food was OK, but next time I would bring some snacks and drinks as the club car prices are a bit steep. Finally, I would have brought a washcloth and some face soap so that I could have washed up in the morning with more than the 200-grit paper towels and hand soap. On second thought, maybe I’ll just spring for the $100 more private berth!... ]

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