Capitals featuring stylized palm fronds, and a colorful floor inlaid with images of the sun and seagulls, evoke the sandy beaches of Florida – southern destination of the Auto Train.
Annual Station Ridership (FY 2023): 272,896
- Facility Ownership: Amtrak
- Parking Lot Ownership: Amtrak
- Platform Ownership: Amtrak
- Track Ownership: Amtrak
Amtrak opened the current Lorton station, designed by Washington, D.C. – based architect Hanny Hassan, on July 18, 2000. The station is located outside of the nation’s capital, and is just south of the Washington Beltway and directly off of Interstate 95, making it easily accessible to customers.
Soaring steel columns with stylized capitals in the form of palm fronds create a colonnade on the main facade, which is composed of a wall of glass that allows natural light to flood the airy 450-seat waiting room. Inside, rows of torchieres light the waiting room and echo the visual rhythm of the exterior columns. The vast terrazzo floor features inlays of the sun and seagulls, evoking the sandy beaches of the Florida coasts made accessible via the Auto Train. Overhead, exposed ceiling beams and ductwork provide a post-modern sensibility, while an abstract sculpture of a sun, by artist Patrick Sheridan, hovers suspended above the lobby.
Arriving passengers check in at the waiting room counter for dinner seatings, and may shop at the gift and sundries store, take their children to play in the station’s playground, or relax until they are called to board on the single 1,480-foot long platform.
The Lorton station anchors the northern end of Amtrak’s Auto Train, with the southern terminus in Sanford, a community in central Florida. This is the only train in the United States that enables passengers to travel with their vehicles—vans, motorcycles, small trailers, and SUVs as well as cars, providing they meet certain size requirements.
Passengers drive through a vehicle gate, at which they receive a claim-check number which is also affixed to their vehicles, and they then proceed to the loading area. From there, travelers continue on foot into the station with their overnight luggage, and their vehicles are video-documented and loaded into the double-level auto rack rail cars, which are split up onto several parallel tracks. After loading, the rail cars and the passenger cars are made up into a single long train, often 40 cars or more, one of the longest passenger trains in the world.
The Auto Train originated in a three-year, $3 million Congressional study in 1965, to determine if auto-ferry service could be as successful in the U.S. as it had been in Europe. Eugene K. Garfield, formerly of the U.S. Department of Transportation, used the results of this study as the blueprint for the privately-owned Auto-Train Corporation that he founded in early 1969. It took some time for money to be raised and track agreements to be signed, but on July 15, 1971, the Auto-Train Corporation went public by offering 700,000 shares at $10 each. Seven million dollars was raised to purchase equipment for this new common carrier—the first established in 50 years.
The Auto-Train began running on December 6, 1971, with daily service in both directions. Lorton was chosen as the northern terminus because the auto rack cars were too tall to fit into any of the older rail tunnels to the north. Additionally, the train was scheduled to leave in the late afternoon so that travelers leaving from Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York could arrive after a day’s drive and take the overnight train to Florida, sparing them an extra night en route.
When service began, the parking lot was still gravel and passengers sheltered in pavilion tents to wait for the train. The facility was finally finished in 1975, and included a box car and caboose previously owned by the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac Railroad that were converted into a gift shop. The waiting room itself was a utilitarian and boxy single story building with attached double carports.
The Auto-Train service became popular, so much so that on May 24, 1974, weekend service between Louisville, Ky., and Sanford was set up. In 1975, the Lorton–Sanford train ran in two sections, five minutes apart during peak periods. However, the combination of two major derailments and the lack of success on the Louisville–Sanford run marked the beginning of the end for the corporation. In September 1977, the Louisville–Sanford service ceased, and in early 1978, another derailment took its toll on the cash-strapped company. In late April 1981, the Auto-Train Corporation ceased operations.
Twenty-two months later, Amtrak revived the operation with a tri-weekly service, now called the Auto Train (no hyphen). This service became popular enough to return to daily service before long, with former customers returning for the Virginia-to-Florida run.
Amtrak began rebuilding the station in 1998 while continuing to run the service, replacing the old building and double platform with a $25-million state-of-the-art 31,000 square-foot complex that required an additional purchase of land from the neighboring Lorton Correctional Facility, soon to close. The new station opened with a Hollywood-style premiere worthy of a train that runs many vacationers to Disney World and Universal Orlando. Funding for the project was provided by Amtrak, the Virginia Railway Express and the Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation.
Lorton is an unincorporated area in Fairfax County with its own post office and neighborhood identity, an arrangement common in the Virginia suburbs of the nation’s capital. Lorton is named for a village in the Lake District National Park of Cumbria, England, the hometown of Joseph Plaskett who settled in the area. Plaskett ran a general store and opened the Lorton Valley, Va., post office on November 11, 1875. Before then, the local commercial center was at Colchester, an unincorporated town and former tobacco port on the Occoquan River, which had been established in 1783.
From 1910 until 2001, this rural area was the site of the District of Columbia’s Lorton Correctional Facility. The prison also had its own railroad between 1911 and 1917. For much of its time, the prison farmed its acreage and operated a dairy—as well as hosting a Nike missile site from 1955 until 1973. In 2002, the title for the facility passed into the county’s hands, to be made into a park or recreational facility. The prison closed and inmates were dispersed to correctional facilities across the country.
Lorton is also close to the large U. S. Army installation at Fort Belvoir. This site was originally the plantation home of William Fairfax, the cousin and land agent of Thomas Fairfax, 6th Lord Fairfax of Cameron, Proprietor of the Northern Neck. William Fairfax completed a new house, Belvoir Manor, in 1741, and it stood until destroyed by fire in 1783. The base was founded during World War I as Camp A. A. Humphreys and renamed in the 1930s to honor the historic plantation. Numerous defense-related agencies call Belvoir home, including the Defense Logistics Agency, the Defense Technical Information Center, the U.S. Army Criminal Investigation Command, the U. S. Army Intelligence and Security Command and the Defense Threat Reduction Agency. Additionally, Fort Belvoir is home to the U. S. Army Materiel Command and elements of ten other Army major commands.
This part of Northern Virginia, long settled, was also home to George Mason (1725–1792), a senior statesman and one of the most influential figures of his era. Mason was the primary author of the Virginia Declaration of Rights and a key drafter of the Virginia Constitution, both written in 1776. The former included references to freedom of the press, free exercise of religion and other concepts that were also incorporated into the founding documents of the United States. Although Mason would later serve as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 in Philadelphia, he did not sign the U.S. Constitution out of concern that there was no declaration of rights. Gunston Hall, Mason’s plantation to the southeast of Lorton, is an outstanding example of Georgian architecture and has long been open to the public.
- ATM not available
- No elevator
- No payphones
- No Quik-Trak kiosks
- No Restrooms
- Unaccompanied child travel not allowed
- No vending machines
- No WiFi
- Arrive at least minutes prior to departure
- Amtrak Express shipping not available
- No checked baggage service
- No checked baggage storage
- Bike boxes not available
- No baggage carts
- Ski bags not available
- No bag storage
- Shipping boxes not available
- No baggage assistance
- No payphones
- No accessible restrooms
- No accessible ticket office
- No accessible waiting room
- No accessible water fountain
- No high platform
- No wheelchair
- No wheelchair lift