Amtrak has long been a political lightning rod. Founded in 1971 as a way for the government to subsidize America’s declining railways, the quasi-corporation, quasi-government entity has recently drawn attention not for its hemorrhaging of cash but for its recent bid to connect with another financially distraught industry: publishing.
The Amtrak writer’s residency, birthed in response to New York-based writer Jessica Gross’s flurry of tweets about how much she liked writing on trains, is sending 24 writers around the country on long-distance trips. The campaign generated immediate buzz and 15,000 applicants in three weeks, and Amtrak was put in the unlikely position of literary critic.
Split between journalists, activists and fiction writers, the program seems to be less about revitalizing the American novel and more about generating good publicity for Amtrak at a time when it’s most likely to make headlines for delays or funding cuts. Though there’s no legal stipulation to actually produce any work promoting the company (or trains in general) during the trip, the company is pushing the program as the perfect way to experience the United States and work in either isolation or in company of friendly strangers — an ideal topic for liveblogging, which they’ve posted on their own website. Farai Chideya, an author and journalist in the first cohort of the residency, noted how social media-driven the residency was from its inception. “I would love to say that I was chosen just on my literary merits, but I also think what factored in is the fact that I have a very active social media presence, and I suspect, if you run down the list [of writers in the program], you’ll see a bunch of people with an active social media presence,” she commented to PBS.
The residency illustrates the tension between the old-world romance of trains and the current economic challenges the company faces. Trains were synonymous with long-distance travel in 19th century America; the transcontinental railroad cut cross-country travel from several months and thousands of dollars to a week and a $65 ticket. But the 20th century saw an onslaught on railway profitability. The rise of the automobile, and interstate bus lines with it, pushed rail towards its slow decline. National highway building and subsidies for other forms of freight piled on to existing problems. By 1970, private passenger railway companies were in crisis.
Faced with the extinction of passenger rail, Nixon signed the Rail Passenger Service Act, funneling taxpayer money into a new private-public entity that scraped together the remnants of the cratered industry. This nascent Amtrak faced a tangle of regulatory issues and redundancies. They chose to cut about half the routes, shutter iconic stations and convert some of the classic long-distance corridors to freight-only.
Today’s Amtrak hasn’t solved these problems. The company will likely never achieve self-sufficiency or profits free of government subsidies. The technological shift is too massive, making decline inevitable. In this light, it’s become a popular congressional target. It’s worth noting, as former Amtrak President David Gunn did during his 2002 testimony to the Senate, that perhaps no form of US transportation is self-sufficient. Airports are bankrolled by government subsidies; highways would crumble without taxes. But the costs of these are less upfront—and less dramatic—than watching taxpayer money pour into a company that lands itself in the red year after year.
However, Amtrak may be more valuable to this country than its financial statements suggest. Alexander Kummant, an ex-head of Amtrak, argued that the company’s long-distance network represented national assets on par with national parks. Traveling by rail is a unique viewing portal through which to see the United States. While they may not be a specific location like Yosemite or Mount Rushmore, trains offer a wider, more versatile view of lesser-seen parts of the country. Few other forms of mass transportation offer this experience: After all, a plane flies far above, and busses drive on fairly isolated highways. And in an increasingly individualized and private United States, trains can represent one of the last democratic spaces for strangers to connect. Jennifer Boylan, an author and trans activist in the first cohort, wrote about her experiences talking about with strangers about LGBTQ issues as “pleasant, normal breakfast conversation”—a topic that can provoke controversy in the public sphere.
In a way, Amtrak has engineered the perfect PR campaign: Send a team of eloquent people who love to share their thoughts and feelings on its most beautiful, if financially unsuccessful, routes. Writers get time and seclusion in an age when traditional residencies are on the decline, and Amtrak gets blog posts for less than it would cost them to hire a social media manager. It may not change the course of the company’s eventual decline, but it’s at least unlikely to generate the waves of negative press that its cancellations or funding woes do.
Further, as Amtrak is a quasi-government organization, the writer residency program draws interesting parallels to the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). The federal government funds the NEA, which drives cultural development, to financially support writers, as well as a myriad of other artists across platforms. Amtrak’s writer residency seems to be filling the same purpose as the NEA, but through a vastly different funding scheme and for vastly different purposes. Using, presumably, Department of Transportation funding to promote a failing quasi-corporate, quasi-government agency through the arts creates a cyclical, codependent relationship: Government saves the arts, and the arts save the government.
The program’s first few writers are just now returning from their trips, and it’s hard to tell what the impact of the residency will be—or even if it will survive to a second year. Its writers have mostly generated glowing reviews of their time with Amtrak: deer watching the train roll by! Wine tastings in the Parlour Car! Conversations with strangers! Wide open spaces! But they haven’t shied away from commenting on spotty cell signal or delays, though they treat them like part of the adventure rather than the irritations most commuters would see them as.
Deep down, those picked still see an inherent romance in trains, though they may not be the kind of old-school Great American novelists we associate with them. They’re more likely to compose a tweet about the prairies or mountains they pass through than pen a paean about them, although one resident did note that she planned on adding a substantial train sequence to her novel-in-progress. But it does seem like some things about the relationship between writers and trains will never change. Writes Boylan, “The only obstacle to the work…is that you really want to spend your time looking out the window. Every second there is something new to see.”