Full disclosure: I submitted an application to the Amtrak residency because I am a female in my mid-20s and the idea of blissfully riding the rails sounds just wonderful. However, I also read the fine print and am very much aware that this is basically a big PR push. I would urge you to do the same.
I’m not alone in submitting; according to Christina Leeds, a spokesperson for Amtrak, more than 5,000 people have submitted applications to the program, which would house around 24 writers/riders for two to five day trips. But, as Electric Literature pointed out this morning, some of those people may not have read all the details regarding what you're submitting.
From the fine print:
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.
So basically, when applying, all 5,000 of those people essentially gave over the rights to their submitted writing samples to Amtrak—rights which some of them may not have had, if they submitted writing samples that they had previously sold the rights to.
Additionally, Amtrak is basically amassing a bunch of material that they can use however they want. Which isn't unusual for contest submissions—a lot of companies who solicit free ideas go on to use them in advertisements—but might still be something to be aware of. Additionally, Amtrak hasn't published any information regarding who would have ownership of the work made by the writers; it's entirely possible that Amtrak might want the rights to that, too.
The other element of Amtrak's residency program is that it comes at a time when Amtrak needs some good PR. Threatened by other, trendier (and less expensive) services like Bolt Bus, the company's ridership, while up nationally, is down in key regions like the Northwest. And this winter's extreme storms on the East Coast and in the Midwest proved to be too much for the service, experiencing delays, cancellations and, weirdly, internet outages.
Of course, none of this is to say you shouldn't go ride the rails and write your novel—you should! Just make sure you a.) are OK with any and all of your submission materials becoming commercials, and b.) have the rights to whatever you submit. Oh, and c.), don't mind being part of Amtrak's great American comeback.