When Old Meets New: Amtrak’s Novel Idea

Amtrak’s latest public awareness move is one part genius, one part accident. What started out as a free train ride from New York to Chicago has since snowballed into a novel (pun intended) concept from America’s largest passenger railroad: a residency for writers.


It all began in December of last year, when Alexander Chee, a short story author and journalist, off-handedly mentioned in an interview that trains were his favorite place to work, telling the interviewer: “I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers.”

Fellow scribes Zach Seward and Jessica Gross took his rumination to heart and starting tweeting about it.

Believe it or not, Amtrak responded.

In February, Jessica Gross took a test run, chronicling a trip for The Paris Review. Shortly thereafter Amtrak confirmed that it is indeed planning to turn the writers’ residencies into an established, long-term program, sending writers on trains throughout its network of routes.

It’s not everyday a passenger railroad gets to be cool. But Amtrak’s writer residencies are tapping into the desire for adventure on the rails. Last year’s Station to Station, another Amtrak-facilitated project, hit a similar note, bringing art and music to the heartland and lots of local attention to it’s patron, the Levi’s brand.

Railroads allow writers to visit specific places like no other mode of travel. There is something romantic about trains. They seem to offer exactly the sort of metaphorical inspiration that writers crave. Just as importantly, they say a lot about the enduring importance of local communities. And it’s that kind of powerful local thinking that inspires us here at the Altitude Group.

Today’s workplace might encourage people to detach from “the real world,” but people are inherently local, physically connected animals. And now there are opportunities to connect with local people and places in new, more authentic ways.

It’s always great to see companies engaging in real conversations on social media platforms like Twitter, but Amtrak’s response goes above and beyond. After creating a storm of hype for the writer’s residency on Twitter, Amtrak plans to offer their trains as a creative venue for select writers. Amtrak is essentially turning a charitable gesture into great marketing for local experiences.

Now, the company is using the idea to tap into South by Southwest, the music fair turned cultural mecca. Amtrak will be ferrying digital VIP’s from Los Angeles to Austin. As Adweek reports, a select few “adventurous thought leaders” will have their own dedicated observation car on the 33-hour ride.

And to be clear, this is more than just personal branding for writers and digital VIP’s. By captivating the imagination of America’s creative class, Amtrak has tapped into a major source of innovation and content. And that might mean getting extra press on social media, or being an integral part of the next great American novel.