Wednesday, April 28, 2010

From the Editor: American “Made in China” high speed trains?

Written by 

By William C. Vantuono, Editor

william-vantuono-web.jpgChina is well ahead of the United States in high speed rail, with plans to invest nearly half a trillion (that’s trillion with a “t”) dollars through 2012 on a national network of rail lines, most of which would be dedicated (“true” or “very”) high speed lines with passenger trains operating at speeds up to 220 mph. Some 1,200 miles of HSR will open this year alone, at a cost of $50 billion. The country’s longer-term plans call for high speed routes expanding beyond China’s borders, linking Shanghai to Singapore and New Delhi and connecting Beijing and Shanghai to Moscow, Tehran, Prague, and Berlin. The Beijing to Shanghai system will be finished by early 2012, cutting travel time to four hours from 10 (pictured, a Chinese high speed train on the Zhengzhou-Xi’an line). By comparison, traveling by Amtrak from New York to Chicago on the Lake Shore Limited, a similar distance (about 1,000 miles), takes about 20 hours. 

Now, following the Obama Administration’s $8 billion in starter funds for U.S. HSR systems, the Chinese want to leap across the Pacific and export and license their HSR expertise to the U.S., supplying technology, rolling stock, engineers—and financing. They’re attempting a jumpstart in California, where in the 19th century the Union Pacific hired thousands of Chinese laborers to build westward the nation’s first transcontinental railroad. The Golden Spike ceremony of 1869 at Promontory Summit, Utah, is a long time and distance away from San Francisco and Los Angeles, but those two cities, separated by 465 miles, represent an initial, $43 billion HSR link in a statewide system envisioned by the California Rail Authority. The Authority,which received $2.25 billion in federal HSR grant funds, needs up to $12 billion in private financing for this project, and the Chinese Ministry of Railways has taken a first step, signing cooperation agreements with the State of California and General Electric.

The MOR’s deal with GE is described as a framework agreement to license MOR technology. GE says the agreement stipulates that 80% of the content of locomotives and related control systems would have to be sourced from U.S. suppliers, with final assembly occurring in the U.S. The MOR would license its technology and supply engineers as well as up to 20% of the components. This agreement is similar to those that rolling stock suppliers to the domestic rail transit market like Siemens, Alstom, Bombardier, Kawasaki, and Hyundai-Rotem have with U.S. transit agencies.

Described by a World Bank transportation specialist as “engineering driven— they know how to build fast, build cheaply, and do a good job,” the Chinese Ministry of Railways says it is “the most advanced in many fields ... willing to share with the United States.” In an extensive interview with The New York Times, Chinese MOR HSR program chief Zheng Jian said his agency “can provide whatever services are needed. ... HSR requires a lot of high technology—we would send many high-end engineers and high-end tchina-hsr.jpgechnicians.”

The State of California seems highly interested in China’s plans, but at the same time the HSR Authority is looking at other proposals from the railways and suppliers of Japan, Germany, South Korea, Spain, France, and Italy. In these cases, the railways are closely aligned with suppliers—for example, SNCF/Alstom/SYSTRA; Deutsche Bahn/Siemens; or RENFE/Talgo.

But besides domestic content requirements, any effort the Chinese attempt to make in U.S. HSR will be filled with requirements and obstacles they don’t have to deal with in China: elected politicians, labor unions, U.S. Immigration, EPA, OSHA, ADA, etc., etc. Aside from exporting goods on container ships, the Chinese have virtually no experience dealing with U.S. regulatory and political bodies. By contrast, railway suppliers like Bombardier, Siemens, Alstom, Talgo, and Ansaldo already have years of U.S. experience behind them. According to The Times, “Zheng said repeatedly that any Chinese bid would comply with all American laws and regulations.”

Easier said than done.

Then there is the issue of intellectual property. Zehn indicated that all of the HSR technology would be Chinese, but according to The Times, “State-owned Chinese equipment manufacturers initially licensed many of their designs over the last decade from Japan, Germany, and France. While Chinese companies have gone on to make many changes and innovations, Japanese executives in particular have grumbled that Chinese technology resembles theirs, raising the possibility of legal challenges if any patents have been violated.” There is some precedent, as this is similar to a scenario the U.S. freight rail supply community has dealt with in the past. For example, several domestic suppliers have grumbled to Railway Age that, after licensing agreements expired, Chinese suppliers continued manufacturing patented, U.S.-design, AAR-approved freight car components without permission.

China is well-stocked with capital and appears ready to bring it to the U.S. HSR table. According to The Times, “China’s mostlystate-controlled banks had few losses during the global financial crisis andare awash with cash now because of tight regulation and a fast-growing economy.The Chinese government is also becoming disenchanted with bonds and looking to diversify its $2.4 trillion in foreign reserves by investing in areas like natural resources and overseas rail projects. [The MOR] has already begun building HSR in Turkey, Venezuela, and Saudi Arabia, and is looking for opportunities in seven other countries, notably a route sought by the Brazilian government between São Paulo and Rio de Janeiro.”

Interestingly, an automobile assembly plant that until late last week turned out Japanese and American cars—the General Motors/Toyota NUMMI (New United Motor Manufacturing Inc.) joint venture in Fremont, Calif., which produced the Toyota Matrix/Pontiac Vibe sport-compacts plus other Toyota models—is shutting down after 25 years, eliminating nearly 5,000 jobs. One idea under consideration is converting the factory to the assembly of HSR equipment, according to California HSR Authority Board Member David Crane, who is also a member of the state’s Economic Development Commission. Instead of Japanese auto parts, Chinese-sourced rail equipment components would arrive through thenearby Port of Oakland.

Regardless of how the Chinese interest in U.S. HSR pans out, swapping automobiles for high speed trains is something the State of California and the Obama Administration would love to see happen.

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William Vantuono

With Railway Age since 1992, Bill Vantuono has broadened and deepened the magazine's coverage of the technological revolution that is so swiftly changing the industry. He has also strengthened Railway Age's leadership position in industry affairs with the conferences he conducts on operating passenger trains on freight railroads and communications-based train control.