GOP senators: Why is Amtrak is giving ‘writers’ free rides?

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Amtrak, a company that received $1.5 billion in federal subsidies last year, is offering writers a chance to ride their rails for free, and two Republican senators want to know why.

Arizona Sen. Jeff Flake and Oklahoma Sen. Tom Coburn called on Amtrak President Joseph H. Boardman Wednesday to provide more information and justification for the subsidy-reliant company’s “writer’s residency” program.

“As the recipient of annual billion-dollar bailouts, the least Amtrak can do is justify these free riders to taxpayers,” Flake said.

According to the residency program’s official terms, Amtrak will be selecting 24 writers for a free overnight trip worth about $900. No actual writing experience is required.

“The ideal candidate will possess strong writing skills as well as extensive social media connections. No professional writing experience or particular educational background is required to apply, however,” Amtrak explains.

The initiative has Flake and Coburn expressing “concern.”

“Media reports indicate that this promotion was generated as a result of high demand for free Amtrak tickets via social media sources,” the pair wrote in a letter to Boardman Wednesday. “We are certain that there is considerable demand for free Amtrak tickets in any number of venues.  Unfortunately, given Amtrak’s prodigious annual taxpayer subsidies, this plan raises multiple red flags.”

In their letter, Flake and Coburn demanded to know how the company is justifying giving out free tickets at a time when it is taking in about a billion in taxpayer dollars annually and “Amtrak’s own website indicates the railway incurred $4.036 billion in total expenses during Fiscal Year 2012 while only generating $2.877 billion in revenue.” The pair also asked if there are any plans for future initiatives of this kind.

Amtrak spokesman Steve Kulm told The Daily Caller that the initiative is seen as a way to market Amtrak, as evidenced by the fact that news outlets like TheDC are writing stories about it.

“The interest in it and the positivity around the program has just expanded and exploded tremendously over the last two or three weeks now,” he said.

According to Kulm the 24 winners will not be displacing paying passengers but taking cabins that have not been sold.

“We are putting these people in space that is already unoccupied. We are not displacing revenue paying customers. These are rooms that would go unfilled,” Kulm said.

Kulm added that to date Amtrak has received about 9,200 applications.

*This story has been updated with Kulm’s response. 

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