Fred games the Auto Train

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Friday, August 31, 2012

Of my car rollsThe other day I de-boarded Amtrak’s Auto Train in Lorton, Va. But instead of proceeding to the station for the long wait to get my car, I hung back and watched. Soon enough, my hunch was confirmed. Pumped up with self-satisfaction, I sauntered up to another passenger about my age also watching the switching of the auto-carrying cars.

“I’ve figured it out,” I told this total stranger.

“That’s great,” he replied, not looking up. “Figured out what?” ‘

“How to have your car be one of the first to be unloaded,” I said.

“Yeah, I figured it out a last year,” he said.

He totally deflated my ego. But the fact is, I did figure out how to be first out of the Auto Train terminals in Lorton (Washington, D.C.) and Sanford, Fla. (Orlando) and thus solved one of Amtrak's great customer-service mysteries. To most of you reading this, who have never ridden this remarkable train — quite possibly Amtrak’s very best (I keep changing my mind) — and probably never will, this little trick is probably of little interest. But would you rather wait 20-25 minutes after the train arrives to get your car, or up to an hour and a half longer? For sure, some of you reading this are paying full attention.

I am ashamed to say I rode the Auto Train once or more a year for 15 years before trying to solve this puzzle. What was wrong with me? Then this spring, riding the train to Sanford, I blocked out in my head the switching of the auto cars onto the train at Lorton and the spotting of these cars at Sanford.

Eureka! Suddenly I understood how to be first out of the gate in Sanford. And it worked then and this past week, when my Jaguar was the seventh vehicle to be unloaded out of 220. Not bad, eh?

But I was less sure about the northbound train. I thought I knew how to be at the front of the class this time but was more interested in getting myself out of a torrential rainstorm in Sanford than putting my car to the test. But I resolved to watch the operation at both ends. And in Lorton the next morning I got my answer.

I will never wait long for my car again (that is, until Amtrak changes how it switches the auto carriers).

So what is the trick? Sorry, I cannot say. For one thing, any number of Amtrak people would compete to kill me in my sleep. Those I’ve disclosed my discovery to all claim I am mistaken, which means I am dead-on correct and dead if I publicly reveal the answer to the puzzle. For another, if everyone knew what I knew the loading process would be chaotic, to say the least. Another way to explain this is, I have an advantage over you, and to explain it would destroy my advantage. I am truly sorry to disappoint.

So my advice to you is to buy me a second martini in a dark, deserted bar late some evening in a forlorn town, or figure it out yourself. If the former, I prefer Ketal One. If the latter, just observe the late switching of auto carriers at one end and the first switching at the other, and block out the moves on paper, because it is counterintuitive. God bless you, and good luck!

By the way, heading home this week, I got to the terminal in Sanford about an hour before the cutoff, not trying to prove anything. The next morning my car was about where I thought it might be, in the second cut of cars to be unloaded in Lorton (that's it, in the photo). Next time, I’ll do better, thanks to what I saw during the switching there. I was still in my investigative mode, understand? But what about the know-it-all who told me he already had gamed the system? As I drove off, he was at the curb, waiting. — Fred W. Frailey

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