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ImagineTrains USA

April 9, 2014


Time Magazine illustration from 1942 of the Bohn Train of the Future

Mimi Sheller, PhD, Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, will be undertaking a study of visions for high speed rail development on Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor as part of a multi-site comparative study.

Wayne State University, in partnership with the University of Michigan and Drexel University, has launched a 2-1/2 year study of the "Imagination," or l'imaginaire of High Speed Rail in America. The study is part of a larger comparative international study, piloted by Max Bergman, PhD, at the University of Basel, and led by French, American, South African, Indian and Chinese research teams. This larger study is exploring the role of the “imaginaries” of decision-makers in choices relative to the train and rail infrastructures. In other words, what motivates the decisions of decision makers (both leaders and users) with regard to championing trains or using trains both in and of themselves, and within the context of the future of transportation as a whole.

Supported by the Forum Vies Mobiles, a French research institute focused on the future of transportation around the world, the American study will examine the development and future vision of high speed rail on the East Coast, in the Midwest, and on the West Coast.

In America, High Speed Rail (trains with top speeds up to 180 miles per hour) has been widely discussed in the four years since President Obama's 2009 HSR initiative. Some states and regions are planning HSR links, whereas others have rejected or cancelled HSR projects. Elsewhere around the world, notably in France, England, Germany, Spain, and China, High Speed Rail travel is a daily reality, with trips between Paris and Antwerp for example, a 200-mile trip requiring two hours between city centers.

In Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) is conducting engineering and environmental studies of improving links between Southeast Michigan (including Detroit and Pontiac) and Chicago, in cooperation with planning authorities in Indiana and Illinois.

In California, numerous advocates and decision-makers and opponents at all levels of government await the first shovel of construction dirt to be turned. Numerous imaginaries of high speed ground travel, including pneumatic tubes and other futuristic devices have received considerable attention.

On the Northeast Corridor (NEC) running from Washington, D.C., to Boston, used by 2,100 passenger trains and 50 freight trains daily, Amtrak has plans to expand capacity of the rail network to accommodate more trains operating at faster speed, while also developing a vision for next generation high-speed rail (220mph). In consultation with stakeholders, a planning process is currently being led by the Federal Railroad Administration.

The study is led by Allen W. Batteau, PhD, a cultural anthropologist and Associate Professor of Anthropology. Co-investigators are Mimi Sheller, PhD, a sociologist at Drexel University and Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy, Ms. Susan Zielinski, an urban planner and head of SMART (Sustainable Mobility and Accessibility Research and Transformation) at the University of Michigan, and Frederick Gamst, PhD, a member of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen and former Professor of Anthropology at University of Massachusetts Boston.

A parallel study is underway in France, conducted by the Paris-based Diderot University's Mobilité Passé Présent program under the direction of Arnaud Passalacqua, PhD. Similar studies of the imagination of high speed rail are planned for South Africa and India.

"The motive force of High Speed Rail in America," according to study director Mr. Batteau, "Is primarily the imagination: imagining that America might catch up with other nations. As with any technological breakthrough, the vision drives the engineered reality."

“Cities all along the Northeast Corridor,” says Co-PI Sheller, “are aligning their growth plans in the context of expected investment in higher speed rail infrastructure; it remains to be seen whether this will come to pass or not, which makes this the key moment to study how railway futures are shaped.”

“In an urbanizing world”, says Co-PI Zielinski “the imaginaire of trains (and the decisions we make about them) subsists in an increasingly complex universe of imaginaires not only of trains, but of the future of transportation. And not only of the future of transportation but of how we want to live.”

For further information contact Mimi Sheller at