There’s no free lunch — at least not any more. There was a free lunch of sorts last December when Amtrak offered wine and cheese gratis to travelers returning home after the Christmas holiday. Except it wasn’t really free. The cost of Amtrak’s largesse, $428,000, was absorbed by you, the taxpayer.
Ditto for the national passenger rail system’s latest giveaway, its writers residency program. “Ask and ye shall receive,” writes the Los Angeles Times’s Carolyn Kellogg in an upbeat article about the program, which was launched in reaction to “an offhanded remark by Alexander Chee and some impassioned pleas on Twitter.”
The venture, which Kellogg candidly admits is “still-unstructured,” is intended to reawaken the romance of riding the rails captured so vividly by writers of the past, most notably Emily Dickinson (“I love to see it lap the miles”) and Theodore Roethke:
I watch a beacon swing
From dark to blazing bright;
We thunder through ravines
And gullies washed with light.
Beyond the mountain pass
Mist deepens on the pane….
The problem is that train travel today, especially in the U.S., is a pale imitation of its noble antecedent. The cars nowadays are drab and antiseptic. The crisp white table linen and gleaming silverware that once graced the tables of dining cars are a relic of a distant time; so largely are the cars themselves. Try to imagine a remake of “North by Northwest” shot on Amtrak, and you catch my drift.
But apart from all that, why on earth does the government see a need to finance this experiment? And why now, when the country is in such dire financial straits?
Other questions: How does Amtrak anticipate deciding who qualifies as a “writer”? Is the program off-limits to budding amateurs? More importantly how much will it cost to hire evaluators who decide which candidates get a free ticket to ride?
Well, I’d like to commiserate more with you over bigger and more intrusive government, but — hey — I’ve got a train to catch.
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