The Official Terms of the program are not author friendly. I saved this for last because it's the big one. Multiple writers and writer organizations took a close look at the fine print and were disappointed, even alarmed. Victoria Strauss of Writer Beware looks askance at Section 6, and so I must admit do I. Its current iteration begins as follows:
In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant's Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties.
This applies not only to your contact info (which, it were all, would be bad enough!) and to your answers to such questions as "How would this residency benefit your writing?" but also to the writing sample you are required to upload. This right there gives the lie to Amtrak's claim that "There is no cost to apply for the #AmtrakResidency program." The cost to apply is to give up all rights to a piece of your writing. To a working writer, this is a demand that we give up the product of our business for free with no guarantee of anything in exchange--for a lottery ticket, as Janni Lee Simner rightly summarizes.
This is a distressingly common request that writers have to put up with, because for some reason our work is not as universally understood to be worth compensation the way, say, a plumber's is, or a even a publisher's. Tee Morris's sarcastic, even scolding response to writers' and writer advocates' concerns can be seen as a symptom of that bias against writers valuing their own work. Writers ourselves are obviously not immune to that bias. Worse, we're prone to making ourselves feel better about that anti-work-valuing bias by embracing it in order to prove ourselves less naive than those crybabies whining about rights grabs.
Now, Morris argues that "Well, if you get the #AmtrakResidency, you're getting a free train ride across the country. And it's round-trip. If goods or services of some kind are exchanging hands, you are getting paid." But that's not what's happening here. You're exchanging those "absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable" rights not for goods and services but for a very slim chance to win goods and services. It would be one thing if these terms only applied to those selected to actually receive an #AmtrakResidency. But they don't. They apply to everyone who applies, from the moment you submit the application. So thousands of writers are actually giving away those rights in exchange for nothing at all.
(If Morris would like to scold me as roundly as she scolds Diane Duane for valuing my work more highly than she approves of, or for using more italics than she deems appropriate, well, she's free to. I appreciate any occasion to keep company with an author I admire as much as Duane.)
Back around March 12, word was that Amtrak was going to fix clause 6 to make it more author-friendly. For a brief time, Amtrak disabled the file upload portion of the form. But as you can see, everything's back in place and nothing has changed. And in the end, Amtrak simply have no incentive to change their official terms at the behest of writer advocates. They've already got upward of 8,000 applications submitted under the terms as is.
It can be argued that Amtrak surely doesn't intend to exploit their newly acquired rights of upward of 8,000 applications. Surely they only intend to publish some nice answers to "Why Do You Want an Amtrak Residency?" Amtrak's Social Media Director, Julia Quinn, confirms these benign intentions. The Wire quotes her as saying that "the idea would be to potentially use the applications as a way to promote the program," which could include "[featuring] the selected residents with an excerpt from their application.... This would happen through a conversation with the applicant."
But the problem, as Strauss points out, is that intentions, assumed or stated, aren't legally binding. Your relationship with Amtrak when you submit your application is governed by the actual terms of the agreement, not by the intentions behind them. And despite what Quinn says, there is no requirement in the terms as written that Amtrak have that "conversation with the applicant." You grant those "absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable" rights the moment you push the SUBMIT button.
In that Wire article, Quinn goes on to reassure us that Amtrak is "not in the business of publishing." But that's not quite true. Amtrak publishes Arrive Magazine, "the magazine for northeast business travelers." Rather than throw away your writing sample as the cost of entering the #AmtrakResidency lottery, you could potentially sell them an article and put the resulting check towards the price of two-way roomette accommodations between Denver and San Francisco.
And if they don't buy the article, you can try to publish it elsewhere, because reputable publishers do not claim rights to those submitted manuscripts which they have declined to publish.
If you take nothing else away from this article, please, take away this: Value your work, writers. Value it enough to sell it dearly, for guaranteed professional rates, under professional contracts with favorable terms. You do not owe anyone your writing for free.