Traveling across the country in a train sounds like the most romantic way to work as a writer. And Amtrak is making this lifestyle possible for 24 lucky writers, who are the first winners of the company’s new residency program. This project spawned after Amtrak responded to some great social media ideas expressed by freelance writer Jessica Gross, who is based in New York City. Back in December 2013, she read a PEN American Center’s blog interview with author Alexander Chee, explaining that his favorite location for writing is a train. “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” he said during the interview. Jessica Gross and Quartz editor tweeted about this interview to Amtrak, which responded the same day with the coolest response ever: “We’d need a test run. You two up for a trip to Chicago and back?”
And the Amtrak residence program was born. Jessica Gross blogged extensively about her test run, which took place in a sleeper cabin. You can read about her entire experience in The Paris Review. Her free ride took her round trip between New York City and Chicago. The first round of applications is over. The train company received a whopping number of applications, 16,000 in total, from interested writers. A four-person judge panel narrowed these applications down to 24 residency winners. The judge panel includes Alexander Chee, who was actually the subject of the PEN interview that inspired this entire thing. Other judges include Amtrak executive Joe McHugh; Amy Stolls, the Director of Literature at the National Endowment of the Arts; and Random House editor Samuel Nicholson.
This program might be just what the Amtrak PR department needs to spread renewed interest in train travel. The company has been hit hard with significant losses, according to the Washington Post. Amtrak has been losing up to $600 million each year. Many of these problems stem from issues involving route placement and federal funding. The Brookings Institution of America released an extensive report on passenger rail operating costs and profits. According to their findings, about 83% of all Amtrak passengers take advantage of the shorter rides between cities. The longer commutes are the ones leaking money. It’s possible that the writing residencies, which take place on Amtrak’s long distance lines, will ignite public interest in these commutes.
Are you thinking about jumping on a train and getting started on your next novel or collection of short stories? Keep track of the residency program by checking the social media hashtag #AmtrakResidency for updates and thoughts about the program.