DETROIT – Wayne State University, in partnership with the University of Michigan and Drexel University, has launched a two-and-a-half-year study of the imagination — or l'imaginaire — of high-speed rail (HSR) in America. The study is part of a larger comparative international study piloted by Dr. Max Bergman at the University of Basel and led by French, American, South African, Indian and Chinese research teams that is exploring the role of the "imaginaries" in choices relative to train and rail infrastructures. In other words, the study will examine what motivates decision makers (both leaders and users) in regard to championing or using trains both in and of themselves and within the context of the future of transportation as a whole.
Funded and scientifically supervised by the Mobile Lives Forum, a research and prospective institute created by the National Society of French Railways (SNCF) to prepare the future of mobilities, the nearly $590,000 American study will examine the development and future vision of rail on the East Coast, in the Midwest and on the West Coast.
In America, HSR — which includes trains with top speeds up to 180 miles per hour — has been widely discussed in the four years since President Obama's 2009 initiative. Some states and regions are planning HSR links, whereas others have rejected or cancelled HSR projects. Elsewhere — notably in France, England, Germany, Spain and China — HSR travel is a daily routine. For example, commuters travel the 200-mile, two-hour trip between Paris and Antwerp every day.
In Michigan, the Michigan Department of Transportation 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, advocates, 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.
The Northeast Corridor — which runs from Washington, D.C., to Boston — is used by 2,100 passenger trains and 50 freight trains daily. Amtrak plans to expand capacity of the rail network to accommodate more trains operating at faster speeds and also develop a vision for the next generation of HSR (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, Ph.D., a cultural anthropologist and associate professor of anthropology in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Wayne State University. Co-investigators are Mimi Sheller, Ph.D., a sociologist at Drexel University and Director of the Center for Mobilities Research and Policy; Susan Zielinski, an urban planner and head of SMART (Sustainable Mobility Access Research and Transformation) at the University of Michigan; and Frederick Gamst, Ph.D., 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 Diderot University's Identités, Cultures et Territoires laboratory and the Passé Présent Mobilité association under the direction of Dr. Arnaud Passalacqua. Similar studies of the imagination of HSR are planned for South Africa and India.
"The motive force of high-speed rail in America is primarily the imagination: imagining that America might catch up with other nations," said Batteau. "As with any technological breakthrough, the vision drives the engineered reality."
"Cities all along the Northeast Corridor 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," says Sheller.
"In an urbanizing world," says 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."
Wayne State University is one of the nation's pre-eminent public research universities in an urban setting. Through its multidisciplinary approach to research and education, and its ongoing collaboration with government, industry and other institutions, the university seeks to enhance economic growth and improve the quality of life in the city of Detroit, state of Michigan and throughout the world. For more information about research at Wayne State University, visit http://www.research.wayne.edu
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