Why I don't want an Amtrak residency
Why have they sent it? Because when they hear the word train they think of me.
I don't want a "writers' residency" because I think trains are real things, not a gimmick. Trains are real ways for real people to get around the world -- yes, including the US. Amtrak trains are convenient and comfortable and great. This program is "take a trip as a special extra thing that's kind of weird and different". To me, trains are the standard normal way I go places. I'm just now planning a 14 stop 12 city signing tour for My Real Children for the end of May and June, and I am doing it entirely on Amtrak. Of course I am. It's the rational logical choice. They'd do better advertising "Take any random train in the US between May 20th and the end of June and have a good chance of seeing Jo". I could be their Colly Cibber! They could give people who recognised me and showed me a copy of one of my books a $10 voucher off their next trip!
There are real things wrong with Amtrak -- the way the homecoming Lake Shore Limited does not connect with the homecoming Adirondack, so I have to spend 23 hours in Schenectady positively leaps to mind. They're not running a system, they're just running trains. But they're great trains. They have improved timing out of all recognition in the last couple of years. They're an excellent way to get places, if you have time, and especially if you have more time than money -- which applies to most writers I know. Yes, you can write on the train -- though I always spend more time looking out of the window and less doing other things than I think I will. (Now I have Protext totally working on this netbook I may be able to actually write on trains. Looking forward to trying that.) But the thing that this program is trying to address is an imaginary problem. Trains are already cool. Writers already take trains. Not just me. I almost always see Steve Miller and Sharon Lee on the train to any given Worldcon. Elizabeth Moon takes Amtrak.
Americans generally, and this includes Amtrak and their employees, have a horrible tendency to think of trains as this weird extra thing -- sure it would be fun, they think, but are you really taking the train both ways? This program adds to this feeling of Amtrak as a gimmick, as an experience, and detracts from the fact that it is a sensible method of transportation. It's fun too! But giving writers random free rides to Chicago and Portland and straight back, rather than because they want to be in Chicago or Portland, isn't helpful.
Also, Amtrak don't need to attract people. The long distance trains are usually packed, book in advance only. They could run twice as many trains between New York and Chicago and fill them up. They can't because they don't own the lines and the freight companies won't let them run more trains. Build more railroads, America! It made you rich in the nineteenth century, it could make you rich again. It's a proven way to help the economy. I'm not even saying high speed, though higher speeds might be nice, but how about a line between Montreal and Boston? And more north-south lines to connect up the east-west lines in the middle? Run a system of interconnected trains. People will take them. I will personally take them and encourage my friends. And Amtrak? I promise, if you build me either a Montreal/Boston or a major north-south line in the middle, I'll mention it in a novel. And if you fix the schedule so I can get home without the 23 hour in Schenectady problem, I'll write a novel in which Amtrak plays a major positive part.
But Amtrak have no incentive to give me anything, because I am their captive audience, I am going to take the train anyway no matter what because I like trains and believe in them. What Amtrak needs is more people like me actually paying them -- not that I pay them much because they are remarkably good value for money, especially if you buy a railpass. But don't expect a handout -- what is this, the Soviet Union? They're a business for goodness sake! Next time you want to go somewhere, especially if you are a writer, do the time/money calculation and consider Amtrak. If you take a train in the US, outside the Acela corridor, you always meet a few people whose first trip this is doing it as an exotic thing. You always meet Europeans. You always meet Amish. And you have a better than average chance of meeting me.