I'd been forewarned about not sleeping on the Amtrak Autotrain. My parents had used it to travel to Florida after purchasing their home in Boynton Beach. They made it known that they hadn't slept a wink because of the racket of the "clickety-clack." I'd dismissed their complaint because they never fell asleep on the first night in any bed that wasn't in their own bedroom. Besides, I knew if Dad removed his hearing aides, he wouldn't hear the train's whistle, let alone the "clickety-clack."
A tennis friend of ours had described lying in the top bunk of the Autotrain as being in a tanning bed with the lid closed twelve inches over her head. Unable to sit up to get down the ladder to the toilet, she and her husband ended up buying TWO sleeper compartments. That way, they both had the wide bottom berths and could get eight hours each.
To travel north from Florida for Christmas 2011, I purchased sleeper tickets IN A PRIVATE COMPARTMENT on the Autotrain. I hoped for better results than the "couchette" on the Orient Express back in the '80's. At least I could speak the language when I got the tickets! We piled gifts for our grandchildren in the rear of the SUV.
I envisioned slithering on my belly, wormlike, into my bunk, if I were above Charley. There was always the option of buying a reclining seat. If we slept upright, I'd probably emerge in the morning bent over looking at the floor, with my already dislocated disc lodged into my hipbone.
We pulled into the Sanford, Florida, train station three hours before departure and were greeted with precise efficiency. Attendants assigned our car a number and tried to take our key. Before Charley would hand it over, however, he wanted the attendant to understand how to disable the SUV alarm system, in the event the train swayed and set it off. He had actually practiced doing this in our garage, and when he thought he was unsuccessful, he sent me hustling off to the dealer (after all, it was my car, and I should know how to do this!) for a demonstration.
The attendants were used to customers like us (over sixty, with many instructions). "No problem, sir," one assured Charley. "The car will never be locked and the driver's window will remain open. We have completely enclosed car carriers. Next vehicle, please!"
Ninety minutes before departure, a steward carried our small suitcases up the stairs on the designated car into our compartment. He slid the door aside and lo! It would be just the two of us! Nothing smelled! There was a reading chair, toilet with shower (we'd have to stand in the toilet to use it), sink, and small luggage rack. Also lots of towels, washcloths, Kleenex, soap, lotion. Tim, the steward, informed us there would be two seatings for dinner, and what time should he make our bunks up?
Well, it wasn't gourmet food, but the menu had several choices and the wine kept flowing! Yes, there were linen and silver and lots of gooey desserts. We stayed with our dinner companions till the dining room closed.
Tim had made up our bunks with sheets, blankets, and pillows. Most people brought their own pillows, but I hadn't thought of that. Not a problem - the Amtrak pillow wasn't too high or too squishy or too lumpy (hypoallergenic, I'm sure). The lower berth was about one and a half times wider than the upper. Guess who would be climbing the four-step ladder?
My biggest concern was getting down in the dark to use the toilet. There was no way I could last through the night! "Just wake me up," Charley said, "and I'll help you down the ladder." I envisioned kicking him in the face, since he wouldn't have his glasses on, couldn't see a thing without them, and the ladder was next to his pillow. My strategy would be to read as late as possible and use the facility just before I fell asleep.
I ascended and was actually able to crawl on all fours to a prone position. On the wall next to me was a pouch for my glasses, book, and a bottle of water (provided). Above our heads were reading lights. A net would prevent my rolling off. Charley and I both swallowed sleeping pills.
I only got up once during the night, aided not by Charley, but by the light of an overhead lamp we'd left on. Charley never moved - reminded me of a certain German passenger on another overnight train!
At 6:30 a.m., a loudspeaker announced there would be three early calls for continental breakfast. We would be pulling into Lorton, Virginia (our destination), about two hours early, by 7:30 a.m. The station didn't open till 8:00. De-boarding the cars would take at least forty-five minutes, depending on one's car number. Ours was high.
We were all in the lounge of the station by 8:00. Our car was one of the last of the 185 off the train at 9:30. There had been a total of 350 passengers aboard; the train itself had been three-quarters of a mile long.
Difference between a "couchette" and a private sleeping compartment? Two extra people and some obnoxious odors!