Rebranding Amtrak

Amtrak doesn’t need a writer’s residency program. It needs to deliver affordable, reliable public transportation.

Last month, Amtrak notified 115 writers that they’d been selected as semi-finalists for a residency on one of the company’s fifteen long-distance routes, complete with meals and a “private sleeping roomette equipped with a desk, a bed, and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration.”

Part of an ongoing PR effort to rebrand itself as a classic, more cultured form of travel, the residency has generated enthusiastic praise from writers across social media as well as in high-profile publications like the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Paris Review.

In the latter, Jessica Gross, a New York-based freelancer who received a trial residency earlier this year on Amtrak’s Lake Shore Limited route, extols the virtues of writing by train, describing Amtrak’s sleepers as “cozily small, like a carrel in a college library.”  Likewise, Adam Kirsch waxes romantic in the New Republic on the affinities between writing and rail travel, contending that “to ride the train . . .  is analogous to choosing to write a book when you could tweet or text. It means refusing the ‘best’ option our technology has to offer, in the name of an ideal other than speed and efficiency.”

The residency has also, however, attracted its share of criticism. Challenging Kirsch’s romantic idealism, Boris Kachka describes the residency in New York Magazine as “one ancillary, antiquated business teaming up with another full of people so needful of acknowledgment . . . that they’d consider a week in a four-by-seven sleeper room a ‘residency.’”

Kachka’s rebuke is part of a second-wave critical reaction to the project, coming on the heels of writers’ initial enthusiasm for the residency and criticizing it, in part, as a hastily conceived social media stunt. In n+1, Evan Kindley writes that “there is something disturbing about . . . so many writers and intellectuals banding together to help launch a viral promotional campaign.” And the Poetry Foundation’s Harriet blog points out that the residency’s official terms gives Amtrak irrevocable worldwide rights to writers’ work.

Indeed, it’s difficult to see the Amtrak residency as little more than a barely disguised advertising gimmick, the latest in a series of recent viral campaigns — Levi’s “Go Forth,” Apple’s “Your Verse” — appropriating writers and their cultural cachet for commercial gain.

Amtrak’s threadbare claim that the residency is “designed to allow creative professionals . . .  to work on their craft” is belied by the fact that the 115 semi-finalists were chosen in part based on “the extensiveness of their social community and ability to reach online audiences with content.”

Even Amtrak’s admission that “we are not in the business of publishing” but rather providing “the inspirational environment in which these works are created” evinces a woefully antiquated understanding of how — and about what — writers write. One could be forgiven for thinking, given Amtrak’s description, that writers today are just as interested as Wordsworth and Keats were in the “countryside” as it “rolls by.”

Amtrak’s conception of writers’ work, that is, remains just as romanticized as the ideal of rail travel it’s attempting to promote. Its routine delays, high costs, and aging infrastructure are part of its nostalgic charm, the company would have us believe, not symptoms of a profound crisis in rail travel.

While Amtrak may be a pleasurably quaint mode of transportation for writers like Gross and Kirsch, it remains embarrassingly nonviable for lower-income Americans forced to rely on rail travel as, say, a cheaper alternative to flying or because Amtrak provides access to rural areas underserved by other modes of transportation.

A one-way ticket from Chicago to Washington, D.C., on Amtrak’s Capitol Limited route, to cite one example, costs $94, while airfare for the same trip averages $180. The Capitol Limited, moreover, makes numerous stops throughout the so-called “flyover” states, including in Elkhart, Ind.; Alliance, Ohio; and Martinsburg, W. Va. — none of which is located within an hour of a major airport.

Yet despite Amtrak’s appeal for lower-income Americans and those who live in rural communities, the company consistently fails them in its actual operations.  The Capitol Limited arrived on time for only 19 percent of its runs in May 2014 — this despite the fact that “on time” for Amtrak means arriving within half an hour of the scheduled arrival. The California Zephyr, running from Chicago to Oakland, was “on time” only 18 percent of the time during that same period, and the Downeaster, from Brunswick, Maine to Boston, arrived on schedule for a mere 8 percent of its runs.

As with healthcare and education, the broad mass of people would benefit enormously from a publicly run rail system that delivered an efficient, affordable alternative to travel by plane or car. This is not an unreasonable demand — many of our cities’ buses and subway systems provide such service already. And set against, say, high-speed rail in China or Europe, the antediluvian shortcomings of Amtrak are even starker.

That writers would clamor so enthusiastically for a residency intended, at its core, to brush aside such appalling public transportation statistics should concern us. The residency is as a representative case study of the increasingly comfortable relationship between artists and corporate elites, a relationship which includes, notably, the Southern Pacific railroad’s offer, in the late nineteenth century, of the very first rail residency. Offering a private car to Oscar Wilde if he would visit Los Angeles, the company hoped to marshal the writers’ cultural capital in support of southern California’s then-nascent real-estate and tourism industries, in which the company had a direct stake.

Wilde declined, but the offer presaged today’s corporate vision of the arts as marketing firm, with not only Amtrak but dozens of other companies co-opting the arts to obscure beneath a patina of creativity the social and economic damage those companies cause. One might recall, for example, Chrysler’s jingoistic “Halftime in America” Super Bowl commercial, written by acclaimed poet Matthew Dickman, or, once again, Gross’ piece for the Paris Review.

“I’m only here for the journey,” Gross writes. “Soon after I get to Chicago, I’ll board a train and come right back to New York: thirty-nine hours in transit — forty-four with delays. And I’m here to write.”  The implications of such a statement are significant. For the problem here is not that Gross, with her specially-arranged residency, can enjoy the Amtrak experience without having to deal with the real-world effects of Amtrak’s egregiously substandard performance, but that we all should be able to.

A more socially responsible residency, rather than supplying as Gross and Kirsch do the rhetorical veneer by which Amtrak masks its failures, would document for the American public the company’s numerous and extensive shortcomings as a mode of public transportation. In so doing, it would serve also as a powerful corrective to the already-cozy relationship between artists and capitalists that risks vitiating this country’s once-vibrant and oppositional forms of artistic production.

We have yet to see this kind of writing in the wake of Amtrak’s announcement of its 115 semi-finalists, but with several months until the final twenty-four “residents” are chosen — and with twenty-four round-trip, long-distance train rides soon after — we may still. Amtrak’s customers, saddled with the company’s second-rate performance, at least deserve better from the writers who will become their fellow travelers.