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Project Blog: USA

IMG_1530smallDenver Union Station (credit: Julia Hildebrand)

imagineTrains Workshop in Philadelphia

June 8-9, 2015

For the past year a team of sociologists, urban planners, and anthropologists in the United States has been studying the imagination of passenger rail travel and High Speed Rail in America. This project, imagineTrainsUSA, is supported by the Mobile Lives Forum, and has participation from researchers and graduate students at Wayne State University, Drexel University, and the University of Michigan.

We have now conducted numerous interviews, reviewed many documents and media productions, and have developed a preliminary conceptualization of the American imaginary of rail, spanning different regions. We are now in the phase of analyzing our data and forming some preliminary conclusions.

To review and discuss these conclusions, the US team is organizing an imagineTrains workshop on June 8 and 9 with decision-makers and influencers from the rail industry. The event will be held in Philadelphia at The Hub at Cira Center, adjacent to Amtrak’s 30th Street Station, and will begin with a dinner and social hour on June 8, and then a full day of intensive discussion on June 9. Rapporteurs will capture the discussion and the entire team will use it in the development of our final product.

We anticipate that our discussion of the imagination of rail transport and High Speed Rail will make a significant contribution to the American conversations over transport and infrastructure.

The event is by invite-only. If you are interested in attending, however, please write an email to Julia Hildebrand:

Workshop Schedule

 June 8

3 PM to 6 PM Participants arrive
6 PM to 8 PM Reception at The Hub, Cira Center: Light buffet dinner and drinks; Informal powerpoint feature: Media Study (Maria Roti)

 June 9

8 AM to 9 AM Continental Breakfast at Venue
9:00 AM Workshop convenes: Welcome and Introduction (Mimi Sheller)
9:10 AM Go-Around (who you are, your relationship to trains – 1 minute each)
9:40 AM Introduction to the project and charge to the workshop (Allen Batteau)
9:55 AM Practicalities (Julia Hildebrand)
10:00 AM Summary of Findings I: Northeast (Mimi Sheller), Midwest (Maria Roti), California (Komal Anand)
10:40 AM Questions from the Participants (Susan Zielinski)
11:00 AM Break
11:15 AM Summary of Findings II: Journalistic Review (Allan Batteau)
11:30 AM Open Mic for participants (Susan Zielinski)
12:00 AM Break for Bistro Sandwich Buffet Lunch
1:00 PM Re-convene and recap on charge to the workshop (Allen Batteau and Susan Zielinski)
1:15 PM Session 1: The Future of Rail in the US
2:15 PM Report back to the group
2:30 PM Break
2:45 PM Session 2: The Dynamics of Decision Making in the US
3:45 PM Report back to the group
4:00 PM Debrief and final discussion (Allen Batteau)
4:50 PM Wrap-Up (Mimi Sheller)
5:00 PM Workshop concludes



What we are reading:

Railway by George Revill (review)


by Frederick Gamst

ABSTRACT With literary flair, geographer George Revill creates a fresh, lyrical composition concerning the technology of railroads in world cultures, emphasizing those of the Anglophone sphere. Frequent illustrations taken from photographs, paintings, drawings, films, posters, and maps are cannily selected. They are a must-see, even apart from the engrossing narratives. Pictures range from Raymond Loewy on his Pennsy S1-class engine to a poster for John Ford’s 1924 movie The Iron Horse.


Four of five thematic chapters portray what one could call railscapes for the mind. First, Revill explores how railroads transformed from being an astonishing, perturbing technology to one that was prosaic and blended into the landscape. Second, he traces the processes through which railroads became a governmental instrument for internal administration and foreign incursions. Third, he explores the individual’s railroad-fostered mobility and how it influenced everyday experiences and senses of the self. Fourth, he examines the intertwining of art, engineering, and commerce in the total railroad product. Railroads are at once historical heritage and hope for the future. Last, he sketches a “cultural ecology” of railroads, from their role in the creation of the anthropocene of disrupted environments to their recent revival as green(er) alternatives to automobiles and aircraft.

One of the book’s strengths is its exploration of the inspiration that railroads gave the arts, including novels, poetry, paintings,music, film, and, informally, myths. From “high art,” such as Charles Dickens and Albert Bierstadt, to staples of kids’ popular culture such as Thomas the Tank Engine and Casey Jones, railroads loom large in the imagination. Expressions of the railroad across the arts relate to the technologically shaped modern society, which railroads helped create. Perhaps the greatest imprint of railroading on the development of modern culture is the standardization of precise time and the necessity of and requirement for timely behavior.

Soaring metaphors, imagery, and possibilities resound in the fifth chapter. However, no narrative recognizes the unromantic railroading of numbing, sometimes hazardous, toil, for example on steam engines in summertime throughout the North American deserts and plains. There, after sixteen hours on duty, climbing down with limp muscles off the scorching monster-machine, a “rail”mumbles, “I’m so hungry that I can hardly keep my eyes open.” Today in the United States, harsh reality finds conservative budget hawks obstructing passenger rail projects and the Union Pacific demanding $1 billion from cash-starved Amtrak for restoring the frequency of one train, the Sunset Limited, from three times a week to daily. The Obama administration put legal teeth into requirements for on-time performance by freight railroads in dispatching passenger trains; the carriers protested to Congress and had the administration apologize for its “mistaken,” now withdrawn, regulation.

Beyond the above views from the footplate, George Revill deftly produces a remarkable cultural tapestry of the railroad, one with many nuanced strands of insight. It includes ideas from innumerable depicters of railroads, from John and Alan Lomax to Henry Thoreau. In all, Revill’s book is a precious, memorable contribution to those interested in railroads and in the rail foundations of modern society.

Dr. Frederick Gamst is a retired member of Tropico Division 660 of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. He once fired steam and has worked for, researched about, and consulted regarding railroads since his “student trips” in May 1955.


What we are thinking about: 

The Historical Context of the Imaginary

by Allen W. Batteau

January 30, 2015

An imaginary is a durable element of any community’s collective existence. It is far from the fleeting fantasies spun by individuals in their idle moments. Rather, it is a shared inspiration that draws its power less from empirical correspondence than from its ability to carry us away from the here and now toward an idealized, more perfect place. The imaginary whispers in our ears, “let yourself go” – toward idealized possibilities, toward our highest achievements, toward our noblest aspirations.

The imaginary obtains this power from its roots in our shared history, going back to our shared beginnings: whether the beginnings of nationalism after the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the New World created in 1492, the birth of the First New Nation in 1776, the beginnings of republicanism in 1789, or the American Century announced by Time magazine editor Henry Luce in 1941. These events represent the resolutions of cultural and cosmological conflicts, whether the Thirty Years’ War in Europe, the opening up of what Leslie Fiedler called “The world without a West” prior to Christopher Columbus, or the final curtain on American isolationism at the beginning of World War II. Even as the historical specifics of each of these are probably known only to historians and antiquarians, and the popular understanding vastly oversimplifies historical complexities, the cultural structures that they established carry considerable force. These include the potent force of nationalism around the world, the “American Dream” of shared opportunity, the French mission civilisatrice, or the assumptions of American exceptionalism in contemporary politics. To understand this force, we have to hear its echoes in history.

For contemporary Americans, mobility is central to our self-definition and self-determination. “See the USA in your Chevrolet” was a very successful advertising slogan in 1952, wrapping together post-War prosperity, the American landscape, personal mobility, and industrial prosperity. Until recently, Americans have understood themselves as “a nation on the move,” both socially and geographically. Yet to understand the meaning of movement, we should place it in a broader context of what mobility has meant in human history.

The earliest humans were roving foragers, hunters and gatherers, whose exploitation of local ecosystems was determined by their available toolkits and their relationships with their neighbors. With the coming of the Neolithic Era and the beginnings of agriculture, humans began living in fixed settlements, and the rise of cities and the state gave sacred force to fixed settlements. The earliest cities were religious centers, and then citadels of political and military power. Palatial architecture served as much a monumental statement of the ruler’s glory as it did a functional or administrative purpose. Commercial purposes in the form of markets and craftsmen’s shops came only much later, and for most of history were an appendage to their political and religious functions.

Over the last 6000+ years, as urban functions have changed from religious and political to commercial and industrial, the meaning of mobility has changed from pilgrimage and tributary offering to economic advancement. Although the industrial city today is mostly a 19th century relic, with both factories and numerous enterprises now located in the suburbs, the commercial and financial center, is today the dominant form: the main architectural contribution of America in the second half of the 20th century is, of course, the suburban shopping mall.

One could refine this with a typology of contemporary cities and their functions: New York City is a hub of communications and finance, Chicago is a hub of transportation and commodity trading, and Washington DC is an imperial capital. Philadelphia, the “cradle of liberty,” is a historical shrine to America’s founding fathers, and Boston lives on as a center of learning. Although these characterizations may be over-simplified, the civic culture of each, from Wall Street and the Big Apple to the City of Broad Shoulders is still shaped by their historic function.

Understanding the meaning fixity, of these settlements, is central to understanding the meaning of movement, whether seeking employment opportunities, administering far-flung state and corporate institutions, surveying the American countryside, re-uniting families, worshipping at civic or religious shrines, or pursuing education and cultural development. The August 28, 1963 March on Washington, bringing together 250,000 Americans, black and white, in support of civil rights for African Americans, was less a political rally and more a pilgrimage to one of the most important shrines of the American nation, the Lincoln Memorial. Similar monuments and historical locations, also sites of pilgrimage, exist in many other lands, whether the Arc de Triomphe in Paris, the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin, or the Bronze Horseman located in Decembrist Square in St. Petersburg, the site of an early uprising against the Russian czar.

19th century American urbanism was about a manufacturing revolution, first begun in Fall River, Massachusetts, in the early part of the century, and accelerating as railways united coal mines with urban centers and tied together local economies into regional economies. Throughout the 19th century the interplay between the rise of urban and manufacturing centers – signals of prosperity – and the closing of the frontier, drove American progress. As America became increasingly urbanized, nostalgia for the frontier increased, resulting in a unique 20th century art form, the “Western.” Although the Commissioner of the Census Bureau officially declared the frontier “closed” in 1891, identification with the frontier and its attributes of bold adventure and self-reliance, remain potent forces in American civic life, even into the 21st century.

At the beginning of the 19th century America was a nation of “island communities” (in Wiebe Bijker’s phrase) – small, self-sufficient rural settlements, for whose residents a monthly excursion in the family wagon to the county seat was typically the limit of their travels. Any movement beyond that – “Go West, young man,” in Horace Greeley’s words associated with America’s Manifest Destiny – was an injunction to seek new settlement, not for mobility as such. It was only in the 20th century, particularly the post-War years, that America became “a nation on the move,” with frequent mobility (for jobs, for leisure, for uniting families) now an expectation.

Before America became a nation on the move, distant travel (aside from transcontinental wagon trains striking out for the frontier) was almost exclusively by rail, and railway architecture, from palace cars owned by the wealthy to palatial railway stations used by all,[1] were monuments to American splendor and abundance. In larger cities the railway stations – Grand Central Station in New York City, Union Station in Chicago, or San Antonio’s Sunset Station, were focal points of civic life, along with City Hall, universities, and monuments to war heroes. In George Revill’s words, “Iconic city stations are both objects of civic pride and socially heterogeneous gateways to the promise of a better urban life.” Even today, far-flung train stations, such as Durand, Michigan, designed by the architects Spier and Rohns, or the Beaux Arts masterpiece of New Haven’s Union Station, echo the grandeur and dignity once associated with rail travel.

The irony here is that as transport became industrial, first through railways and tramways but later through automobiles, it changed the character and meaning of the city, from the place where a civilization was concentrated, in Lewis Mumford’s phrase, to an urban agglomeration of commercial and administrative functions. Fundamental changes in the appreciation and appropriation of space, in Henri Lefebvre’s analysis, came with this transformation of transportation. Our sense of place, space, and pace owe much to rail transport and its successors, yet are now so deeply ingrained that, like the oxygen we breathe, they seem just natural.

Today, unlike throughout most of our history, rail travel must compete with both automobiles and with air transport, and travel choices balance off convenience, efficiency, scenic appreciation, and social companionship. Air transport, for example, in the 1950s was an elite experience and an opportunity for status display. Since 1979 air travel has become a drudgery, and airlines have made passenger discomfort a calculation in their business model. The exception to this is the ownership of a private jet, the 19th century equivalent for which was the ownership by wealthy industrialists of their own private railway cars.[2]

Travel choices in other words are made in a space that balances off multiple values and preferences, embracing not only the purpose of the trip but also the traveler’s self-definition. Even today, although bus rapid transit might offer the greatest comfort and convenience, many shun it because public buses are at times thought of as “loser cruisers.” Successful transport systems, whether private automobiles on interstate highways or certain Amtrak lines, have been able to find optimal balances between passengers and purposes.

Travel is always associated with civic purpose, whether striking out for the frontier, seeking education and opportunity, administering businesses and institutions, or the cult-like appreciation of a sublime landscape such as the Yosemite or the Grand Canyon. Even the stereotypical, lighthearted Sunday afternoon drive in the country is not just a whim, but a celebration and re-intensification of family unity. To comprehend l’imaginaire we have to understand travel as part of la vie sérieuse in Émile Durkheim’s phrase – tied to important purposes of family, city, and nation. In our exposition, we have to achieve a balance between the specific developments in American history that give force to l’imaginaire, and the superficial articulations through which these are popularly appreciated. As we inventory the different purposes of rail and other travel over the twentieth century, we will find behind this shifting kaleidoscope of experiences and appreciations, the broad currents of a changing understanding of American civilization.



[1] Although Negroes might be assigned to separate cars, entrances and waiting rooms, at least before the 1960s. The Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, on the other hand, provides a rich history of this subaltern group, particularly under the leadership of A. Philip Randolph, an early civil rights pioneer.

[2] To continue the thought in the previous footnote, stratification and status display are always in the background of l’imaginaire mobile, whether in the type of car one drives, where one sits on the train or the plane, what deck one occupies on a cruise, or how easily one can command the conveyance.