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Imagine Trains: The imaginary of Trains and Rail Transport in the United States

Project #: 14
Name: Sheller, Mimi (mimi.sheller@drexel.edu; 215-571-3652)
Department: Culture and Communication
Academic Area: Mobilities Research; Science, Technology, and Society; Sociology

Title: Imagine Trains: The imaginary of Trains and Rail Transport in the United States

Description:
We are conducting a qualitative study of how decision-makiers, policy-makers and passengers think about rail travel in three different regions of the United States, as part of a wider cross-national study of the future of rail funded by the Mobile Lives Forum (Paris). The aim is to understand the "imaginaire" of rail, a French term meaning the collective representations or shared perceptions, that may influence decision making around the future developent of rail projects. In particular, we are interested in the potential development of higher speed passenger rail in the Northeast Corridor (NEC), the Mid-West, and California. The Humanities Fellow at Drexel will be assisting in the empirical data collection concerning the NEC, focusing on plans for higher speed Amtrak service between Boston and Washington, D.C., via Philadelphia and New York. At this stage the main approach will be to conduct interviews with decision-makers, collect and analyze documents and imagery relating th future visions of rail, and possibly run a focus group with passengers. The findings will be shared with research team members based at University of Michigan and Wayne State University who are studying the Mid-West and California plans. Research will mainly be in Philadelphia, but may involve optional day trips to New York or Washington, D.C. to help conduct interviews there.

Associated Independent Study:
The independent project linked to this research project could be to produce your own analysis of the visions and plans for higher speed rail on the Northeast Corridor, based on the collection of planning and envisioning documents from the last five years or so; analysis of web-site imagery and narratives such as those from the High Speed Rail Association, from Amtrak, and from the US Department of Transportation. It should draw on approaches that the supervisor will assign readings about, including in mobilities research, science and technology studies (STS) on large-scale infrastructure systems, and how these intersect with questions of mobility, energy, pollution, and sustainability.

Gained Experience:
The student will gain a introduction to the fields of mobilities research, science and technology studies, and literature on infrastructure, sustainability, and energy, which will be highly relevant for any future study in these areas. They will also gain familiarity with qualitative research methods, in particular the use of interviews and discourse analysis. They will also gain some exposure to an international research collaboration with partners in other countries as well as across the USA (University of Michigan, Wayne State University), and might be able to attend some of the research meetings of the wider group.

Outcome:
The outcome will be a report for a funding agency (Mobile LIves Forum); contributing to the first draft of a study of the development of higher speed rail on the Northeast Corridor; and potentially an article for an academic journal.

Tasks:
Assisting in scheduling interviews with decision-makers in the Philadelphia/New York area; assisting at some of those interviews (recording/taking notes/possibly asking the questions); transcribing the recorded interviews; assisting in the data analysis of the interview transcripts through coding and discourse analysis; web-based research on planning documents concerning higher speed rail; analysis and summary of higher speed rail plans, maps, vision statements, imagery, etc.

Location:
The project will mainly take place at Drexel, with possible visits to other locations to conduct interviews (e.g., Amtrak offices, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Corporation office). There may be one day-trip to New York or possibly to Washington, D.C., (optional not required) to conduct interviews there, which will be funded through the project.

Meetings:
Meetings will probably take place once or twice a week, on Tuesdays/Thursdays, as well as scheduled interviews to collect data, for which times will vary. Other work such as transcription will be conducted independently.

Interview Availability: April 21, 2014; April 22, 2014