Amtrak couldn’t have hoped for a more sanitized depiction of riding the beleaguered Empire Builder than what they got this morning from CBS News as a result of its invitation to give a free ride to two dozen writers in exchange for their prose.
The network today profiled novelist Bill Willingham, Amtrak’s first writer in its writer-in-residence program, who rode from Red Wing to Seattle (and back, we think). The piece, and Willingham’s blog, never mentioned the long delays and time spent going nowhere in its romantic depiction of the train.
The scourge of oil trains? Not a peep.
Willingham did a nice job of depicting the things that are nice about traveling by train, but he ignored the system’s failures, something he could’ve mentioned by talking to the regulars about the Empire Builder or first-timers who aren’t used to sitting in a terminal for seven hours waiting for a train to arrive.
At least by my limited experience: If you reveal to other passengers that you’re one of the Amtrak Writers they will be fascinated enough by the program to grill you on it for the entire meal in the dining car (for instance). You won’t have a moment to ask them anything. This frustrated the writer part of me, who always wants to ask the questions, in hope of getting inside information on interesting professions, or locations, or anything else that might work it’s way into a story someday. I want to do what I can to promote the program, which I think is a fine one, but also have that need to be the one prying into Bill Willingham Power Cordother lives. It’s a dilemma.
Willingham doesn’t pretend to be a journalist. His intent was to get inspiration for his fictional work. And Willingham indicates on his blog post that he wants the writers program to continue and promote Amtrak.
After he got to Seattle, writing a daily blog along the way even though his primary mission was to work on a novel, Willingham turned around and headed back east.
He says he wrote posts along the way, but Amtrak stopped posting them. He said in a Twitter message today that there might have been “too much oddness and whimsy” in his day-seven report that we never got to see. Now there’s a good train mystery!
Amtrak has not yet responded to a request for an explanation.
[Update 11:08 a.m. – Amtrak says it was an oversight and has now published Willingham’s work]
Today, for the record, the eastbound Empire Builder is five hours late. The westbound train is three hours behind schedule. Yesterday’s westbound train is six hours overdue.