Choo-choos and pew-pews: Amtrak's policy on guns

Choo-choos and pew-pews: Amtrak's policy on guns
(AP Photo/Felicia Fonseca)

Traveling with firearms should not be a big deal. Unfortunately, it can or could be. Depending on where one is traveling from, to, through, and how; all depends on how much of a pain traveling with a gun might be. Traveling across state lines with a firearm, there are certain federal protections. There are ways to handle checking a firearm in for travel by air, which are generally easy to learn from specific carriers and/or the TSA. But what about Amtrak trains?

Light rail, cross country train, or heavy rail use is still a prevalent way to travel through the United States. For many, why take a train over long distances when you can just jump on a plane? Commuting into and within some cities, train makes sense. But those longer voyages? 

Just last year someone turned me onto the Amtrak Auto Train and it blew my mind. The idea is you pack your car for your voyage like it’s your suitcase, check it in at the train station, and your car is loaded onto a train. You have a few options on how you’ll travel on the train yourself, such as regular coach seating, something called a roomette, the larger (not by much) bedroomsbedroom suite, family rooms, or accessible rooms. The voyage starts in the evening, goes overnight, and ends the next morning, provided there are no delays. You bring with you a carryon and personal item, similar as you would on a plane.

The Amtrak Auto Train runs from Lorton, Virginia to Sanford, Florida. Unfortunately this is something that’s only viable for those traveling from the northeast to Florida, or vice versa, but the service is still a game changer and mileage saver on the cars, and saves people from having to get a rental at their destination.

What is Amtrak’s firearm policy? They do allow firearms on their trains provided the firearms are in checked baggage. There’s a whole slew of information about this on their website. None of it specifically talks about the Auto Train.

Firearms in Checked Baggage

Amtrak accepts reservations of firearms and ammunition for carriage between Amtrak stations and on Amtrak trains within the United States that offer checked baggage service and a ticket office. Thruway Bus Services are not be included in this service. The following policies are in effect:

  • Notification that the passenger will be checking firearms/ammunition must be made no later than 24 hours before train departure by calling Amtrak at 800-USA-RAIL. Online reservations for firearms/ammunition are not accepted.
  • The passengers must travel on the same train that is transporting the checked firearms and/or ammunition.
  • All firearms and/or ammunition must be checked at least 30 minutes prior to scheduled train departure. Some larger stations require that baggage be checked earlier. Please contact your departure station for more details.
  • All firearms (rifles, shotguns, handguns, taser guns, starter pistols) must be unloaded and in an approved, locked hard-sided container not exceeding 62″ L x 17″ W x 7″ D (1575 mm x 432 mm x 178 mm). The passenger must have sole possession of the key or the combination for the lock to the container. The weight of the container may not exceed 50 lbs/23 kg.
  • Smaller locked, hard-sided containers containing smaller unloaded firearms such as handguns, taser guns and starter pistols must be securely stored within a suitcase or other item of checked baggage, but the existence of such a firearm must be declared.
  • All ammunition carried must be securely packed in the original manufacturer’s container; in fiber, wood, or metal boxes; or in other packaging specifically designed to carry small amounts of ammunition. The maximum weight of all ammunition and containers may not exceed 11 lbs/5 kg.
  • The passenger is responsible for knowing and following all federal, state, and local firearm laws at all jurisdictions to and through which he or she will be travelling.
  • All other Amtrak checked baggage policies apply, including limits on the number of pieces of checked baggage, the maximum weight of each piece (50 lbs/23 kg).
  • Firearms/ammunition may not be carried in carry-on baggage; therefore, checked baggage must be available on all trains and at all stations in the passenger’s itinerary.
  • At the time of check-in, passengers will be required to complete and sign a two-part Declaration Form.
  • BB guns and Compressed Air Guns (to include paintball markers), are to be treated as firearms and must comply with the above firearms policy. Canisters, tanks, or other devices containing propellants must be emptied prior to checking and securely packaged within the contents of the passenger’s luggage.
  • Passengers failing to meet the above-mentioned requirements for checking firearms will be denied transportation.

To inquire about or begin the firearms reservation process, use the Contact Us page and select “Checked Firearms Program” as the subject and follow guidance.

Okay, so what does this mean for our Auto Train travelers? 

I booked a trip myself in November that started with a drive from New Jersey to Lorton and I got on the Auto Train there. I was staying in the Orlando area for about a week, which is not far from Sanford, then planned on driving to Atlanta for a few day stay, followed by Williamsburg Virginia for a couple of days stay, and then back to Jersey. 

The key here is there are no checked bags on the Auto Train.

I reached out to Amtrak via email a few weeks before I was scheduled to take my trip. They got back to me two weeks after I returned. So they were not very helpful for that trip, which I did a pile of research on and learned nothing “official”. There were a few online posts here and there, but nothing from Amtrak. Most of the posts I read all reiterated that there is no checked baggage service and that it’d be forbidden to travel on the train with a firearm in one’s possession. If the firearm was stored in your vehicle, it’d not be in your control because you leave the keys to your car with the crew that load the vehicles on, and you don’t see it again until they drive it off the train at your destination.

One friend, when I was discussing this with him, suggested I just pack it away deep in my luggage in the car anyhow. How were they to really know? Dogs. They do use dogs from what I understand and the last thing I would want is to be ready to board the train, get paged, and then have to answer to why a dog is finding something it’s trained to find in my baggage.

What did Amtrak have to say in their very tardy email to me?

Thank you for contacting us regarding the Auto Train and our firearms policy.

Firearms can only be accept on trains that offer checked baggage.  As the Auto Train does not offer checked baggage services, firearms cannot be transported on our Auto Train.  Should you require additional assistance, please contact our toll free number 1-877-SKIP-I95 (877-754-7495).

We hope this information is of assistance.

So that’s their policy. While I certainly don’t agree with it, and can come up with several ways that we could easily, safely, and securely store firearms in a car, and further they should have checked bag service just for this, it’s their rules. Interesting to note, while in Lorton, I saw no mention of firearms, what-so-ever, but in Sanford, they did have “no firearms allowed” signs noting that passengers are not allowed to leave guns in their cars nor take them on the train.

Would I travel by Auto Train again? Probably. But it does add another dimension to getting a firearm to Florida should I wish to have one down there, which would require shipping it to myself. The process could be a whole other ball of wax, with its own set of challenges. But if you’re wondering about taking the Lorton, VA to Sanford, FL Amtrak Auto Train and if you can bring your gun with you, their answer is a resounding “no”.