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Free train trips for writers

A westbound VIA Rail Canada passenger train rolls across the prairie northeast of Brandon on a sunny afternoon last summer.

TIM SMITH/BRANDON SUN Enlarge Image

A westbound VIA Rail Canada passenger train rolls across the prairie northeast of Brandon on a sunny afternoon last summer.

Ever since my sister moved to Saskatoon, I've been promising that I would come out and visit her.

Now that she's bought a house — with all of the attendant trauma about renovations — her requests have become pleas.

I've been thinking for a while, though, that I'd like to take the train out there.

I love the train. When I, for a while, lived in northern BC, I often took the train from the Brandon North station to Edmonton, where I could switch to the Greyhound and take the bus the rest of the way. It was a long trip — and the bus/train combo was slower than driving — but it was a heck of a lot more pleasant to put my feet up and coast along courtesy Via than it was to pilot myself.

When my girlfriend and I took a trip to Montreal and New York a few years ago, we flew to Montreal, and then too Amtrak down to NYC. It was great, despite some snow delays. We also took Amtrak home from NYC — it took us halfway across the country, dropping us off at Rugby, N.D., where my dad picked us up.

While that trip was a little crowded and less enjoyable, thanks to a winter train cancellation the day before and a woman in the seat in front of us who was very loudly leaving her boyfriend over the phone, it was still an adventure.

Over in Europe, we fell in love with long-distance, high-speed rail travel.

So, I've been following the saga of the Amtrak residency with interest.

If you haven't heard of it, it happened with stunning speed — one writer mentioned that he loved writing on the train, and wished trains had a "residency" program so he could just sit on the train and write all day.

Another writer picked up his thought and tweeted the question directly at Amtrak:

Amtrak's response: Awesome, come on board.

They comped her a trip and a room, and all she had to do was … well, whatever she felt like. She ended up writing an article about the experience and doing an interview with Amtrak's official blog.

Not only was it a publicity coup for Amtrak, tons of other writers wanted in on it, too.

So now Amtrak has an official Writers-in-Residence program:

#AmtrakResidency was designed to allow creative professionals who are passionate about train travel and writing to work on their craft in an inspiring environment. Round-trip train travel will be provided on an Amtrak long-distance route. Each resident will be given a private sleeper car, equipped with a desk, a bed and a window to watch the American countryside roll by for inspiration. Routes will be determined based on availability.

Applications will be accepted on a rolling basis and reviewed by a panel. Up to 24 writers will be selected for the program starting March 17, 2014 through March 31, 2015.  A passion for writing and an aspiration to travel with Amtrak for inspiration are the sole criteria for selection. Both emerging and established writers will be considered.

Residencies will be anywhere from 2-5 days, with exceptions for special projects.

Sounds like a great deal for an aspiring writer — or heck, even an established one.

Not everyone is keen, esepcially those who keep their eyes open for possible conflicts of interest. It's especially dicey for journalists, who need to keep their impartiality.

But in an era where anyone can become a publisher just by starting a blog — but where advertising dollars are getting smaller and smaller — things like freebies and giveaways are more tempting for word scribes.

And why not? Movies and TV shows have been fattening their budgets with product placement for decades. I'm not aware of it filtering down into the same type of writing (could you imagine product placement in a novel?) but it seems a natural fit for some of the quasi-journalistic non-fiction writing, which are basically essays.

Consumer Reports may have made its reputation on exhasutive testing and reviewing — which start by purchasing a product off-the-shelf — but there is a long history of reviewers being comped the product that they are reviewing. Many TV and movie reviewers get advance screenings, which they don't pay for. Technology reviewers will have devices shipped to them. Video games reviewers are notorious for accepting freebies.

Many big-name publications posit that their reviewers must not keep whatever is sent their way, and they have to be returned when they're done, but I can say that's not always the case. Although we get a lot fewer than we used to here in little old Brandon, my boss used to give away a regular Box of Schewag" full of promotional items and review copies of CDs and books that were shipped our way. Publishers just weren't interested in an opened copy of some musical flavour-of-the-month — especially if it had been specially marked to prevent resale.

So why not a train trip?

Englishman Mark Smith has built a bit of a niche empire in the past decade as the Man in Seat 61. he runs a rail-focused website at seat61.com that is incomparable as a comprehensive guide to travelling by rail.

He is relentlessly positive, somehow manages to have exhaustive information no matter what corner of the globe you're looking at, and now makes his living from the website and spinoffs like books and T-shirts.

I have relied on his site several times — and tried to pay his advice back with a traveller's report of my own after the smallest of snafus in Egypt — but I look at his extensive network of travelling, and I can't calculate how much it would have all cost.

Now, he's a pro, and he has excellent money-saving tips, and I have no information one way or the other about how he pays for his rail journeys — but would I mind if I learned that he had had some trips comped?

Not in the slightest. For his purposes, I'm not sure how that would be any different than an air traveller collecting frequent flier miles and availing themselves of a free trip every now and again.

Frankly, rail companies should be leaping over themselves to offer him free trips.

That's essentially what Amtrak did — but they did it on Twitter, for someone who hadn't spent a decade building up a railway-focused website. That's cool In fact, great work Amtrak for taking an idea and turning it into a promotional opportunity so quickly. That residency program is probably going to pay dividends for years.

Of course, Canada's national passenger rail service is no slouch on Twitter, either.

 Via's musician program is actually pretty cool:

VIA Rail's Artists on board Program offers complimentary or reduced fare travel for approved professional musicians in return for performing on board the Montréal-Halifax and/or Toronto-Vancouver trains. The program is available to solo performers or duets and is open to Canadian citizens only. Assessment is based on relevance to our product and passengers. All requests must be made at least four (4) weeks prior to the requested departure date.

However, it is a little limited. No Prairie performers? Nothing through the Rockies or B.C.?

I see from a recent reply that Via is now looking at expanding their musician program to include writers. I've asked them about geographic expansion. Hopefully they say yes.

Because I still haven't gotten out to see my sister ;)

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