All aboard for resolving a traffic problem in Lorton
Every day, the Amtrak Auto Train departs Lorton at 5 p.m. bound for Sanford, Florida, just north of Orlando. Passengers start arriving at the station, located just off Lorton Road, around 11 a.m. to noon to start queueing up to get their vehicles loaded onto carriers that, in turn, are loaded onto the train. A similar process takes place at the Sanford Auto Train Station at the same time of day; cars line up to board the 5 p.m. train for the 17-hour journey to Lorton.
Some days, the process can be seamless, but on others, unanticipated train delays can cause a traffic headache at the stations, with vehicles arriving and lining up for departure before the inbound train’s vehicles have had a chance to unload. With limited room for onsite queueing, traffic can start spilling out onto the roads outside the facility and cause gridlock. Such was the case on Lorton Road between Richmond Highway and the I-95 on-ramps.
The issue was first brought to the attention of the South County Federation, an umbrella group of Lorton area homeowners and civic associations, in fall 2021. Participants in the federation’s monthly meetings discussed the routine congestion that occasionally impacted two to three lanes, backed up traffic in one direction to Lewis Chapel Road and caused problems for traffic exiting Lorton Elementary School. At one meeting, a community member reported that a police officer had parked his vehicle underneath the I-95 overpass to try to prevent other vehicles from using illegal maneuvers to enter the station.
By early 2022, a decision was made by the federation’s Transportation Committee Chair Pete Weyland and other committee members to ask Congressman Don Beyer’s office to schedule a meeting with Amtrak to resolve the problem. That meeting took place July 20 via Zoom and was “well attended” by around two dozen stakeholders, according to Weyland, including representatives from the offices of Beyer, Delegate Kathy Tran and Congressman Gerry Connolly, and leaders from the South County Federation.
“Amtrak sent their A-team,” Weyland later informed other federation members. Attendees included the national rail operator's vice president of government relations, superintendent of customer service, deputy police chief, director of government affairs and senior government affairs specialist. This showed that Amtrak considered the matter "a very serious issue and priority,” said Weyland.
A spokesperson from Amtrak’s PR department in Washington, D.C., Kimberly Woods, said they were grateful to have been contacted about the situation.
“We want to make sure we’re giving customers the best possible experience, so working with Lorton and county officials and coming up with a plan and offering solutions is a goal,” she said.
On Sept. 19, Amtrak officials joined federation members and elected officials for a follow-on meeting at the Lorton Auto Train Station to conduct a site tour and present a short-term solution. The solution, which Amtrak planned to pilot test at the site, involved snaking the onboarding and offboarding traffic and using a digital message board to instruct drivers at the entrance to the facility.
The pilot got delayed for a few months due to a staffing shortage; however, by early 2023, Amtrak had delivered a message board to the station, changed its queueing configuration and completed testing of the new set-up. “Plan B is working,” Weyland reported in May 2023.
According to Woods, Amtrak may opt to make the message board permanent if they are able to get the necessary permits and approvals from the municipality. As far as a more long-term, permanent solution is concerned — South County Federation had broached the prospect of Amtrak acquiring additional real estate for an outbound vehicle queue — Woods said the matter has yet to be decided.
“We will assess what’s going on now,” she said. “We’re always looking at ways to improve the environment for customers, so we can revisit and see if there are other options to consider.”
Under the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, Amtrak received funding that enabled it to create a new Office of Community Engagement to develop closer ties with communities, said Woods. An office was established last year in Washington, D.C. and additional ones will be set up in Chicago and on the West Coast. Besides facilitating meetings with community members, such as the one in Lorton, the office will provide local volunteer opportunities for Amtrak team members.
For now, the South County Federation and Lorton community are pleased with the outcome of the situation. Weyland credited collective community efforts and political pull, as well as Amtrak’s sense of responsibility, for resolving the traffic conundrum.
“As long as this works, we’re going to be happy,” said Weyland.