Pulling the brake on the Amtrak writer’s residency

Dear applicant for the Amtrak Residency program:

You have just submitted an online application for a free trip in a private cabin on Amtrak, which is conducting 24 writers’ residencies on its passenger cars because it’s good publicity. I hope you’re picked, because trains are fun and because you may accomplish some quality writing in transit. I also hope you’re picked because trains are insanely expensive, and no one — especially writers and English majors and other practitioners of the liberal arts — should have to pay, say, $300 to get from the District to New York and back.

I also hope you realize that this residency program is a sham. Forgive me, but sometimes we must step away from romance to get closer to it.


The Amtrak Vermonter heads down the tracks in Middlesex, Vt. (AP Photo/Toby Talbot)

Trains: Romantic! The barreling solitude, the freighted aura of adventure, the twinge of melancholy as the world blurs away. In 1869 railroads made manifest our destiny with a gold spike slammed into the chimney of Utah. My great-grandfather retired in 1925 as a switch man on the New York Central Railroad; I think of him at Union Station when I board the BWI-bound MARC train, which is the only Amtrak-affiliated route whose cost I can stomach (a sane $12 for the 80-minute round-trip). Railways are “irresistible bazaars” that improve “your mood with speed,” the travel writer Paul Theroux noted in 1975. Did I mention that it costs hundreds of dollars to take the train to New York, unless you book months in advance and/or depart in the seamiest hours of the night? How can it possibly cost less to launch yourself skyward into a 30,000-foot-high arc at four times the speed?

Easy. Amtrak’s 400-plus-mile routes posted an operating deficit of $614 million in 2012, while its shorter routes (like those between the District and New York) had only a $47-million surplus, according to a 2013 Brookings Institution report. And yet ridership more than doubled between 1997 and 2012. Amtrak, birthed by a 1970 government bailout of the country’s privately-operated rail network, is a publicly funded for-profit entity. Last fall the Congressional Budget Office calculated the taxpayer savings over 10 years if the government withdraws its federal subsidies starting in 2015: $15 billion, or roughly $47.00 per person, which is enough to get you to Philadelphia on the Northeast Regional, if you leave at 3 a.m., but not enough to get you back. So we end up paying top dollar on the back end for a trip to New York, but mostly because no one’s riding the longer routes, like the California Zephyr (a 2,438-mile trip between Chicago and San Francisco).

The federal subsidies to Amtrak prompted Republican senators Jeff Flake of Arizona and Tom Coburn of Oklahoma to write Wednesday to Amtrak’s president, expressing their concern over the residency’s free rides. “Given Amtrak’s prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags,” they wrote.

Math, the antidote to romance. Also deflating: The Amtrak Residency’s terms and conditions, which prescribe a search for publicists, not the next great American novelist. Applications and writing samples that pass an initial evaluation will then be judged by a panel “based on the degree to which the Applicant would function as an effective spokesperson/endorser of [the] Amtrak brand.” That brand, it seems to me, is inertia. Slow-moving and price-gouging. Exclusive yet shabby. Especially when measured against the affordable high-speed rail in Europe, China and Japan. Amtrak, with its residency program, is exploiting the romance of the railways to endear itself to a demographic that likely can’t afford its prices. And yet we haven’t been a railroad nation for decades. We are people of the bus. Our muse is the motor coach, our mecca the Delaware Welcome Center Travel Plaza. Furtively gorging on Popeye’s is not as romantic as pretending you’re Eva Marie Saint in a dining car, of course, but the true romance of writing is that it can be done from anywhere, in an $18 bus ride up I-95, and not just from a complimentary cabin in the service of a public relations campaign that reserves “the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.”

Fine print aside, the nation’s writers seem energized by the residency, if Twitter is any indication. Why rain on the parade, then? Two reasons: Contrarianism and romance, but especially romance. The American spirit thrives in transit. Kerouac wrote that “there was nowhere to go but everywhere.” Steinbeck began “Travels with Charley” by acknowledging “the urge to be someplace else.” William Least Heat Moon, disappearing from life’s crises into America’s back roads, wrote that “a man who couldn’t make things go right could at least go.” But the fuel must be freedom, unbound by contract or assignment or obligation to the left-behind or the conveyor. Transit can be pricey, but time is the precious commodity here. If the only way you can get that time is to win a train trip and cocoon yourself in a sleeper car, then by all means. As I said, trains are fun.

Amtrak is accepting applications now through March 31, 2015, and has received over 8,000 so far. The selection of residents starts Monday and will total no more than 24. A resident’s round trip can be valued up to $900, which means Amtrak is prepared to pay $21,600 for this endeavor. Which seems a bargain for ad copy from two dozen spokespersons. If you do get a residency, consider devoting a leg of the trip to subterfuge. Write about what it would be like if Amtrak were affordable, if writers could disappear on trains regularly without blowing a freelance paycheck. That’s a romance I want to read.

Dan Zak is a feature writer and general assignment reporter based in the Style section. He joined the Post in 2005, after stints as an editorial assistant at Entertainment Weekly and a city-desk reporter and obituary writer at The Buffalo News.
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