Monocolumn

A daily bulletin of news & opinion

26 May 2014

A few months ago, in another Monocolumn, we told you about a writers-in-residence programme that US rail company Amtrak was trying out. The goal was to inspire people to think of using rail instead of planes or cars.

The whole idea came about when a writer simply used social media to say he liked writing on trains. Not too much later Amtrak was in touch with him offering him a free ride across this massive country to see what inspirational things a view of cow towns, wide-open plains and mountains might bring.

Soon others were asking Amtrak for the same thing. The only thing Amtrak got in return was an occasional social media shout-out and an article or two about each trip. Fast forward a few months and Amtrak has now launched a fully-fledged programme. Amtrak Residency, as it’s called, allows “creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment”.

The whole thing serves as an interesting case study in just how starved our once-proud national rail system (now privatised with heavy government subsidy) has become for attention. Look, I get it, we as Americans have failed ourselves. Our leaders have not gotten serious enough about making rail a bigger part of the transport mix, thus we’ve let it languish. Sure, we haven’t built high-speed trains but then again, we really haven’t even focused on keeping a lot of the existing rail lines properly maintained.

So, when I saw another recent story about Amtrak turning its Philadelphia train stations into outdoor art galleries I had to know more. The project, called Psychylustro, is a collaboration between a Berlin-based artist (yes, not even a local one) and the City of Philadelphia. According to project leaders the art changes depending on how fast the train is moving – which, I guess, means there might always be something different to look at on an otherwise boring commute.

The city estimates that more than 34,000 passengers pass by the murals everyday. Again, great exposure for the trains, at least in the initial media blitz. But what happens when the excitement fades? Sure, an artist got to say her piece and maybe even inspired some people along the way. That’s dandy, but what about the bigger issues? A real high-speed rail system? Better basic infrastructure?

I am all for community arts and inspired writing but my fear is that one-off, fleeting burst of interest are even worse for a system that really needs more attention than goofy headlines and lip service from public officials.

Tristan McAllister is Monocle’s transport editor.

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