Kriston Capps is a staff writer for CityLab covering housing, architecture, and politics. He previously worked as a senior editor for Architect magazine.
The #AmtrakResidency program bolsters the notion that train travel is a ponderous luxury, not a useful public good.
Maybe I'm just jealous. Amtrak has announced the 24 winners of its inaugural #AmtrakResidency program, and my name isn't on the list. Granted, I never applied. But now there are 24 people getting free tickets for long-distance passenger rail lines, and I'm not one of them. Tickets that I might like to use. Tickets that a lot of people might like to use.
It's nothing against these specific writers—although I did feel the distinctive urge to chuck my laptop when I spotted among the winners one pick-up artist-turned-self-help guru who goes by a mononym and just bought an island. May the winners all use their long-distance Amtrak rides to write their poetry, criticism, music, letters, spy shit, and whatever else they can accomplish with a window seat and unreliable WiFi. Except that guy.
Alright, definitely I'm just jealous. Who wouldn't envy Jessica Gross, the journalist who deserves partial credit for spurring Amtrak to introduce its writers' residency program? She published "Writing the Lake Shore Limited" in The Paris Review, following a "test run" of the residency. (A test run being a free round-trip sleeper cabin from New York to Chicago on Amtrak's Lake Shore Limited line.) There's a special arrogance in being able to afford the route that costs far more than flying, but arrives in nowhere near the same time. And like Gross, I am about that life.
It sounds as though Amtrak has bought into the mythology that Gross ("the train is bounded, compartmentalized, and cozily small, like a carrel in a college library") and thousands of shorter testimonials on Twitter have helped to bolster. "Our long distance trains don't just connect small towns to big cities, they connect families, friends and loved ones," reads the blog post announcing the residency winners. "They offer a chance to connect with other travelers, experience the American countryside without the stress of driving, and to unplug and take in the inspirational experience."
One party that isn't buying Amtrak's line: the Grand Old Party. Republican Senators Tom Coburn of Oklahoma and Jeff Flake of Arizona threw a fit after Amtrak announced the official details of the program. "Unfortunately, given Amtrak's prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags," they huffed in a letter to Amtrak president Joe Boardman.
Artists raised their own red flags about #AmtrakResidency. "If someone uses an Amtrak residency to do an exposé on the hideous state of train travel in this country, then maybe it will be worth it," wrote literary critic Jessa Crispin. "I just want Amtrak to pay me back for all the trains I’ve already taken." In an article for n+1, Evan Kindley complained that "there is something disturbing about the spectacle of so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign."
If Amtrak wanted to support art, it would've sought out writers who don't own islands and given them vouchers for the trips they need to take. Tickets for trains home to see their families, cross-country to promote their work, or to destinations to meet their mentors. Amtrak found a class of people that needs cash—that's writers—and gave them time. (Most of the winners appear to want for neither. My complaint about the non-island owning writers is that they're too established for this kind of support, for the most part.)
If the point of #AmtrakResidency is to promote Amtrak, well then, all aboard. Fixing the application with riders—that applicants list their Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, that any resulting intellectual property belongs to Amtrak—was frankly overkill. The viral promotional campaign had already left the station.
If there is a passenger-rail renaissance in America, as the Brookings Institution observed last year, then it's one built on the sort of trips that poets, playwrights, and even island-owners are in fact already taking: short-distance routes, especially between major metropolitan areas. (Or would take more often, if these trips were cheaper.) The Congressional Budget Office has targeted Amtrak's "uneconomic services and routes" as a commonsense way to save taxpayer money, and it hangs its argument on the most-subsidized, lowest-ridership long-distance routes. The same romantic routes that #AmtrakResidency indulges.
This program gives Republicans two reasons to despise long-distance Amtrak service: What they already thought was wasteful is now artful. Yet #AmtrakResidency doesn't offer writers what they really need, either—which is less a clean, well-lighted place and more cheap, well-running transit. This writer's residency program misunderstands both transportation and art, and by doing so, it's uniting Amtrak's critics.