The Magazine

Writing the Rails

Mar 10, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 25 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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There’s long been a certain romance associated with train travel. Think of the trains of the 1920s, replete with well-appointed compartments and dining cars featuring white tablecloths and five-star cuisine. And one need not necessarily go back in time to find examples of impressive trains: Even in the present day, France’s lightning-fast TGV and Japan’s famous bullet trains retain a certain cachet.

Amtrak, America’s government subsidized passenger rail service, is decidedly less glamorous, it’s probably needless to say. With its endemic delays, prison-style cafeteria food on plastic trays (though unlike the clink, there’s at least beer—for $7 a bottle), all-too-often-filthy lavatories, and slow speeds, Amtrak is more like a Greyhound bus on rails than a luxurious conveyance. There’s a reasonable case that Amtrak provides a necessary service—particularly in the crowded corridor between Washington and Boston—but the Orient Express it ain’t.

Amtrak may be aware of this, as it’s decided to start simply giving away its product in pursuit of “buzz.” As the Los Angeles Times explained last week,

Amtrak has launched a still-unstructured writers residency program thanks to an offhanded remark by Alexander Chee and some impassioned pleas on Twitter. In a PEN Ten interview that posted Dec. 23, Chee, author of the forthcoming novel “The Queen of the Night,” said that trains are his favorite place to write. He then commented, “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

Bizarrely, other writers seemed to share Chee’s sentiment, and uttered words never before heard in the English language: “I want to spend several days on Amtrak!” And so, the Times continues, Amtrak decided to accomodate them:

The first writer to accept its residency and blog about it is Jessica Gross, who traveled from New York City to Chicago and back. That was thanks to Twitter, where Gross was among the several writers who enthused about Chee’s idea and included Amtrak in their tweets. Amtrak took notice, and residencies were born.

Like the best writers’ residencies, Gross’ stay with the host (Amtrak) was free. The train company asked, in exchange, that she post about her experience on social media.

This would all be well and good, and hardly The Scrapbook’s concern, were Amtrak simply throwing away its own money. But it’s not: The rail company that feels so flush as to give free rides to writers requires more than $1 billion in taxpayer subsidies each year just to keep the “trains running on time.” Or, er, not on time, as the case too often is.

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