Writing on trains

The morning view from my Cologne-Copenhagen sleeper service – not inspiring, perhaps, but certainly unusual


I am in a little sleeper cabin on a train to Chicago. Framing the window are two plush seats; between them is a small table that you can slide up and out. Its top is a chessboard. Next to one of the chairs is a seat whose top flips up to reveal a toilet, and above that is a “Folding Sink”—something like a Murphy bed with a spigot. There are little cups, little towels, a tiny bar of soap. A sliding door pulls closed and locks with a latch; you can draw the curtains, as I have done, over the two windows pointing out to the corridor. The room is 3’6” by 6’8”. It is efficient and quaint. I am ensconced.

Jessica Gross writes for The Paris Review on trains, on a train.

Gross recently raised with Amtrak the notion of a writers’ or artists’ residency on one of their long-distance trains, something that various institutions as diverse as universities and Antarctic bases offer.

I can’t say I’ve ever written chunks of the next great novel on trains, but I’ve certainly been receptive to that feeling of being cut off from the outside world – in a kind of suspended animation, almost. This feeling can also be felt on a sufficiently long plane ride.

It provides for a very effective writing-inducing atmosphere. I’m guilty of jotting down my thoughts and reflections, whether in a notebook or an app – possibly a run-down of recent events or, heaven forbid, some snippet of fantasy fiction about the redhead across the carriage.

My only experience of a sleeper train was hampered somewhat by mid-summer, mid-European temperatures, and a delay which meant my long-anticipated entry to the service was around midnight, leaving me creeping over snoring, anonymous bodies and trying, in vain, to visualise my surroundings in the dim light.

Providing much better surroundings for a good scribble, therefore, is the long-distance train ride during the day. What could be better than the gentle rock of the carriage, as Gross notes, and the constantly evolving scenery whizzing past outside. I get tingles of wanderlust just writing these words.

After some feedback on the above article, Gross noted on Twitter that perhaps a British equivalent service could offer artists’ residencies too. We only have a couple of overnight sleeper services here, from London to the south west and the Highlands of Scotland. But I agree with Gross: whether it’s on a sleeper service or just one of our longer routes, I think it’d be a great idea.

You can read a lot more about Amtrak’s residency program here: Inside Amtrak’s (Absolutely Awesome) Plan to Give Free Rides to Writers – The Wire

UPDATED 24/02/2014

Having made some enquiries, I was pleased to hear from Virgin Trains that they are considering a similar plan to that above. Their communications manager told me:

Would you believe we are currently in discussions with an artist who we hope will take that very title. It would be more along the lines of capturing the essence of our operations (focusing on our staff and customers). So slightly different to the Amtrak idea albeit I imagine the views from our windows in Cumbria would certainly inspire.

Excellent! I wonder if any other British train operating companies (TOCs) have considered this sort of scheme? I’ll update this post with any further updates.

UPDATED 27/02/2014

The latest TOC to respond is Eurostar who say that, although they love the idea of an artists’ residency, they only have a very limited number of complimentary press tickets at their disposal, and so would struggle to justify such a scheme. Here’s hoping they can figure something out with an artist who would make it worth their while.