I often find that my best writing happens while underway. During a red-eyed traverse of the north Atlantic or a long train trip where I can’t doze off, the dimmed glow of my computer is somehow comforting – a shepherd of productivity.
It’s easy to let your mind organise things when you’re in a space that’s organised, safe and looked after. There’s not much distraction when you’ve no vested interest in the hundreds of strangers seated around you. And, in a place like New York City, oftentimes people say they look forward to their rail commute to and from work. “It’s simply a bit of personal time on either end of my day,” they tell me.
All of this has been no secret to the companies that work to get us from A to B. Amtrak advertises its Acela train service to the business travellers who need to get between Boston, New York and Washington DC. It offers wi-fi, ample table space and electric outlets so those in transit can stay on top of things.
But it seems catering to the business traveller isn’t the only way to keep the trains running: Amtrak has taken all of this a step further. A recent article by Jessica Gross in The Paris Review recounts a trip to Chicago from New York aboard a train. But Chicago wasn’t where she was actually headed: her destination was the journey. She spent 40 hours on trains and didn’t even spend the night in Chicago, heading back to New York the minute she arrived.
Based on the accounts of many writers before her, Gross decided she would find inspiration in a rail journey and thus convinced Amtrak to give her a writing residence aboard a train. The free trip was not part of an official programme but it could very well be. Amtrak says it’s still hammering out the details but that it will most likely begin a scheme for writers to explore their craft while holed up in rolling stock. In return for the trip, Amtrak will ask that the writer promotes his or her journey online.
It’s easy to get bogged down in the basic utility of planes or trains. They get us around but aren’t often the reason that we’re actually in transit. While the journey is typically not the focus of any trip, in this instance it is. What’s more, journalists and writers who share their rail journeys with readers provide a far stronger endorsement than advertisements ever can.
In a country where rail is often equated to a dying mode of transport it’s important that people are reminded that taking the slow boat (or train in this case) may just cure a few things: writer’s block and an ailing transportation system among them.
Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.