J.M.W. Turner, Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway (1844; public domain artwork via Wikimedia Commons)

This has to be one of the coolest things I’ve heard of in a while: Amtrak is starting a writer’s residency program. The deal is that writers can apply to take a free round-trip anywhere on its system and simply write as they ride the rails.

The program started rather informally as a Twitter exchange in which a writer named Jessica Gross expressed a wish to write aboard a moving train. Amtrak set her up with a seat from New York to Chicago, and she later wrote about the experience for the Paris Review.

Not surprisingly, other writers took notice, and Amtrak is now setting up a more formal program and application process. It’s not clear what the requirements will be on the writer’s side, other than to use the time to write aboard the train and perhaps to send out some tweets en route. The Wire blog post contains a good Q&A and Amtrak’s social media director Julia Quinn also participated in a Reddit AMA session.

As a Canadian resident, I probably can’t apply for this program, but VIA Rail, are you listening?

UPDATE: It seems that Amtrak has put in some troubling language surrounding “exclusive” rights to the required writing sample in paragraph 6 of the terms and conditions. The comments on Amtrak’s blog post on how to apply are interesting – make sure you have all the info before applying, know before you go!