Who Travels by Train? Visions for the Future of Mobility on Four Continents

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The international research project ’imagineTrains’ studies perceptions, ideas, and problems that decision makers and passengers associate with rail as a mode of transport. The aim is to clarify how such perceptions arise and how they influence train services. In this , the project’s director, Professor Max Bergman, explains the practical questions that form the basis of the team’s research and shares their initial findings.

Mr Bergman, the ‘imagineTrains’ project studies perceptions of rail mobility in China, France, India, South Africa and the US. How did the project come about?

Max Bergman: To begin with, we were guided by the question as to how policy makers envision the future. In France, for example, investment in the rail network was planned over 40 to 50 years, with the focus of course on the TGV system. The aim was to find a way to transport people from Paris to the relevant hubs and back, as quickly and elegantly as possible. Rail projects of this magnitude have an enormous impact on society. Land prices rise in towns located along the high-speed train route, while there was also increased investment and job creation. Towns not directly connected to the network are at a disadvantage.

Rail projects have an enormous impact on society. We wanted to analyze the basis of decisions that have a major impact on a society’s long-term future.

We wanted to analyze the basis of these decisions that have a major impact on a society’s long-term future. What are the concepts of mobility that shape investment decisions and thus the future of regions and societies? To what extent are a society’s needs incorporated into these concepts?

What specific questions do you ask in the case studies?

What is a train? What significance does a train have? For what purpose will trains be used in 50 years’ time and by whom? We looked for the answers to these questions from the perspective of decision makers and train passengers, and also from people who don’t use trains. The road between Los Angeles and Las Vegas sees bad traffic accidents on a regular basis. It is a monotonous stretch of 400-500 km through the desert, with just two or three bends. However, the train service between the two cities was discontinued because it did not pay. We wanted to know why the train was hardly used and what type of service would have to be offered for people to start using it. Price was part of the problem, along with the issue of getting to the station. However, one of the primary reasons was the fact that people thought a train journey lasting several hours would be too unvaried – even if the alternative were a boring drive. People complained that they were not picked up, did not have the chance to get out and that the train did not drop them off right at the casinos. If the train were to offer entertainment – restaurants, shows, slot machines or card tables – people would be more likely to consider the train as an alternative.

More entertainment on the train – would that strategy work in other countries?

It’s a bit different in China, where efficiency is much more important when it comes to mobility. In the space of just two years, a huge new station was built in the center of Beijing, with new tracks. A year later and the station had become a transport hub moving 300,000 passengers a day. People used the station as soon as it opened as a matter of course. The construction of the station and its new tracks naturally had a relocation effect, but this was a minor factor in the politicians’ decision. The public good and the future are dealt with differently than, say, in the station project in Stuttgart – without making any judgment. The concept of the imaginary is embedded in the historical and cultural context, allowing completely different visions of the future.

Along with China, another of the University of Basel’s key partner countries is also involved in the project, South Africa. Your team conducted a case study with researchers at the University of Cape Town.

We took 200 South African newspaper articles and used them to study notions of rail mobility in public discourse. We compared coverage of two rail systems. Metrorail is the existing, relatively inexpensive national railway system for the general public. It transports people from the suburbs to the cities and industrial centers. The media tends to portray Metrorail in a negative light, branding it unreliable, dirty and unsafe. A lack of investment in recent decades has led to neglected infrastructure, poorly maintained trains and insufficient capacity. At the same time, the fact that investment into Metrorail has now stopped is supported. Metrorail is presented as a dilapidated system and its impending disappearance a stroke of good luck.

The Gautrain’s routes can be seen as tunnels between the gated communities - financed by the general population but accessible only to a small sector of society.

Instead, investment should be in a system of high-speed trains that embodies the future of rail transport. The first such system was established in Gauteng province with the Gautrain network. While Metrorail’s services are being scaled back, only very few passengers have started to benefit from Gautrain. Although further expansion is planned, at the moment only members of the middle class use the Gautrain from the suburbs into business and shopping centers. These routes can be seen as tunnels between the gated communities – financed by the general population but accessible only to a small sector of society. The majority of the province’s population is excluded from use of Gautrain and has to rely on Metrorail. The report on the two train systems reflect the country’s transformation from a racist society to a class-based one. As well as creating new potential for conflict, this transformation will also have major social, economic and environmental disadvantages for South Africa.

The project team is spread across four continents. How do you all manage to work together?

We have to work together across national and cultural boundaries, without thinking that we can ignore them. The researchers at our locations have a lot of freedom. As the project director, I do not tell them how to work. Instead, we come up with ideas for smaller projects and analyze the data together. Above all, the question that guides us is the idea of the ‘imaginary’ in mobility in general and rail mobility specifically. However, the target is not a single study, but rather a cluster of studies. Each team has to contribute to the central theme, although of course this is largely determined by the context. We want all our project partners to have the necessary freedom to work productively in terms of questions and methods, but we also have to check regularly to ensure we do not work at cross purposes. We have to renegotiate on an ongoing basis to make sure we strike the right balance between convergence within a joint project and the individuality of national teams and the researchers within the teams.

The project receives financial support from third parties. How do you deal with the fact that economic and political interests may play a role?

I accepted the role of of the project on the condition that it would not be used for consultancy or marketing purposes. The project should lead to policy-relevant insights, but still remain academic research. I have noticed that decision makers in politics and the economy tend to be very aware of social issues and dynamics, the zeitgeist. This same sensitivity is often lacking at the university.

That I want to conduct research that contributes to the academic landscape and is also relevant to society. For this, it has to capture the dynamics that affect us. The future is formed by politics, religion, the economy and science. These days, politics and business are very influential – either working with one another or against one another. We academics have to make sure we play an active role that goes beyond mere critique. We need to become a partner in order to better represent society’s interests. I want to do more than just describe, criticize and understand. I want to use socio-scientific theories and empirical research to contribute to shaping the future in a globalized world.

Professor Manfred Max Bergman is the head of the Social Research and Methodology Group in the Department of Social Sciences at the University of Basel. His main area of work is international comparative research on sustainability and urbanization.