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Take the A train

It's no bullet train _ the 861-mile trip takes more than 16 hours _ but the Amtrak Auto Train offers a break for travelers weary of driving up and down Interstate 95 between the nation's capital and mid Florida.

The Auto Train provides daily nonstop service between Lorton, Va., just south of Washington, D.C., and Sanford, about 30 miles northeast of Orlando. Trains depart both locations at 4 p.m. and are scheduled to arrive at the other end of the line at 8:30 the following morning.

It's the only train in the United States that allows passengers to take along their vehicles _ automobiles, vans and motorcycles.

But no pets.

Typically, the Auto Train is the longest passenger train in the world. It stretches from one-half to two-thirds of a mile long, with 50 cars, including two locomotives, a crew car, diner and lounge cars, coach and sleeper cars and vehicle carriers. It can haul 270 vehicles in 32 cars and 600 passengers in 18 cars.

The passengers are served dinner and breakfast and shown a full-length movie in between. Each seat in the coach reclines with a foot rest; pillows and blankets are provided. Space in sleeper cars is available for an additional cost.

Safety concerns have increased since an Auto Train derailed in North Florida on April 18. Four passengers were killed and 150 were injured. Nonetheless, several passengers on a recent trip commented that they encountered fewer hassles than they would flying these days, and they would take the train again.

Meg Stanzione, a homemaker from Toms River, N.J., who recently made her third trip this year, is one who prefers the Auto Train to air travel.

"There's good food on board and the staff can't do enough for you," says Stanzione, who owns a condo in Sarasota and was traveling with her daughter, Nicole, a student at the University of Tampa.

Carole Healy and Gladys Pekari, retirees from Ormand Beach, were returning home after visiting relatives in Pennsylvania. Healy can't drive long distances anymore and Pekari doesn't drive.

"Gladys and I don't like to fly," Healy says.

"The bus makes too many stops," Pekari adds.

Maureen Wetzold, a former New Yorker who now lives in Fort Lauderdale and is a customer service representative for American Express, was returning to Florida after visiting relatives. She didn't want to drive alone with her boys, Chris, 12, and Kile, 10, and she thought the train ride would be an adventure.

"The cars were spacious," she says. "I would definitely take the train again."

Ray Abbott of Virginia, an Amtrak attendant for 12 years, has a tip for Auto Train riders.

"Passengers usually carry too much luggage on board," he says. "Leave the baggage in your vehicle and relax and enjoy the ride."

If you go:

COSTS: The round-trip coach fares for adults range from $167 to $267, depending on the time of the year; children ages 2 to 15 ride for half those prices. The one-way sleeper room fares for two passengers range from $119 to $264.

The one-way trip prices for vehicles range from $140 to $281 for cars, $228 to $455 for vans and SUVs, and $109 to $218 for motorcycles. AAA members receive 10 percent off vehicle prices.

Automobiles may be no taller than 65 inches. Vans and SUVs may be no taller that 85 inches.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: The Amtrak Auto Train toll-free reservation number is 1-877-754-7495. The Web site is www.amtrak.com.

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