The multiple folds of irony are all most too much to handle. The nation’s government-run passenger rail service – which has never once in more than four decades turned a profit and relies on perpetual taxpayer handouts - plans to start offering free rides to writers. The idea, which stemmed from a New York-based writer’s tweet, will launch an official residency program for writers on its long-distance routes, coincidentally the least cost-efficient and most heavily subsidized in the Amtrak system. Amtrak is a perpetual loser, and it’s unlikely that this writers-ride-free gimmick will have a happy ending.
Perhaps no government program has embodied bureaucratic waste and inefficiency quite like passenger rail travel in the United States – a taxpayer-funded gravy train that has received $40 billion in federal subsidies, has never once made it out of the red, and entered last year well over a billion dollars in debt. Worse, the service asked for another $2.6 billion in federal funding for fiscal year 2014, and yet has the audacity to offer “free” rides to writers.
“I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.” A simple tweet at the agency’s social media account is all it took for the service to offer the writer a free trip from New York to Chicago and back. According to CNN, up to 24 writers will be chosen, and all will be offered trips on “undersold long-distance routes.” The Northeast Corridor is only profitable portion of Amtrak in the entire country – leaving many options for the writers in which to get the creative juices flowing.
The service has resorted to offering free tickets, a bed, desk, outlets, “and a window to watch the American countryside roll by” to a lucky few, perhaps hoping to drum up a little positive copy for the increasingly unpopular and expensive rail service. Each writers package has an estimated at a retail value of about $900 – not exactly chump change. Needless to say, the prospect for return on investment is slim – and that shouldn’t be a surprise to most taxpayers. After all, this is an agency that managed to lose $834 million on food sales alone in the past decade.