Amtrak’s New ‘Writers’ Residencies’ Promotion Offers Free Rides to Writers

As writers, we’re all too familiar with the common, seemingly hopeless quest to find a place where we can sit and work for hours at a time without household, office, or coffee shop distractions getting in the way. One place we’ve heard many a fellow writer tout as a fantastic, distraction-free workspace is a train — being alone (and somewhat captive) for an extended period of time seems to help inspire the urge to buckle down and be productive.

But what starving writer can afford to ride around on a train every time they need to meet a deadline?

Enter Amtrak. Thanks to a serendipitous Twitter encounter and a successful trial run, the train company has decided to offer promotional “Writers’ Residencies,” which will allow writers to hop round-trip trains for free.

After reading Alexander Chee’s interview in Pen America, which read in part, “I still like a train best for [writing]. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers,” New York-based writer Jessica Gross was inspired to tweet her agreement.

Apparently recognizing a unique marketing opportunity, Amtrak responded to Gross, saying:

Why the heck not? Gross contacted Amtrak’s social media team to set up the trip, booking a round trip ticket on the Lake Shore Limited, on which she rode from New York City to Chicago and back to NYC again, writing for the duration of the ride. All for the price of a few tweets and a post-trip interview for Amtrak’s blog.

It was a win/win for both writer and company, so Amtrak has decided to make it a regular thing.

In an interview with The Wire, social media director for Amtrak Julia Quinn explained that while the details are still being worked out, the “idea dreamed up by Amtrak fans and customers” has experienced high demand and a positive response. The eventual goal, she said, would be for the company to “engage with writers several times a month.” While there’s really no way to apply yet, writers and Amtrak are currently reaching out to each other on Twitter and going from there. Future participants might be selected with a “tiered approach,” with priority given to individuals who have a strong social media presence.

As far as the whole free thing is concerned, Quinn said that Amtrak is committed to fostering a “mutually beneficial relationship” with writers and keeping the program low cost, but will need to determine whether the current free ride scenario would be sustainable for a long-tern program. As of now, though, the residencies are still free.

Quinn’s detailed interview can be read here.

We’re excited to see how this all plays out; it’s a very modern, social media-based promotion that manages to embrace and perpetuate an old-fashioned and romantic idea about both train rides and writing: when it comes to either, it’s not so much about the destination as it is about the journey.