Sun, Apr 11, 2010 - Page 9 News List

China hopes to drive US rail construction

A century-and-a-half ago, Chinese laborers were imported into the US west to build railroads; now, California is hoping to import railway help from China again — only this time in the form of technological and engineering expertise

By Keith Bradsher  /  NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE , BEIJING

Nearly 150 years after the US railroads imported thousands of Chinese laborers to build rail lines across the west, China is poised once again to play a role in US rail construction. But this time, it would be an entirely different role: Supplying the technology and engineers to build high-speed rail lines.

The Chinese government has signed cooperation agreements with California and General Electric (GE) to help build such lines. The agreements, both of which are preliminary, show China’s desire to become a big exporter and licensor of bullet trains traveling 345km an hour, an environmentally friendly technology in which China has raced past the US in the last few years.

“We are the most advanced in many fields, and we are willing to share with the US,” said Zheng Jian (鄭健), the chief planner and director of high-speed rail at China’s railway ministry.

California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has closely followed progress in the discussions with China and hopes to come to China later this year for talks with rail ministry officials, said David Crane, the governor’s special adviser for jobs and economic growth, and a board member of the California High Speed Rail Authority.

China is offering not just to build a railroad in California but also to help finance its construction, and Chinese officials already have been shuttling between Beijing and Sacramento to make presentations, Crane said in a telephone interview.

China is not the only country interested in selling high-speed rail equipment to the US. Japan, Germany, South Korea, Spain, France and Italy have also approached California’s High Speed Rail Authority.

The agency has made no decisions on whose technology to choose. However, Crane said that there were no apparent weaknesses in the Chinese offer, and that Schwarzenegger particularly wanted to visit China this year for high-speed rail discussions.

Even if an agreement were reached for China to build and help bankroll a high-speed rail system in California, considerable obstacles would remain.

China’s rail ministry would face independent labor unions and democratically elected politicians, neither of which it has to deal with at home. The US also has labor and immigration laws stricter than those in China.

In a nearly two-hour interview at the rail ministry’s monolithic headquarters here, Zheng said repeatedly that any Chinese bid would comply with all American laws and regulations.

China’s rail ministry has an international reputation for speed and low costs, and is opening 1,930km of high-speed rail routes this year alone. China is moving rapidly to connect almost all of its own provincial capitals with bullet trains.

But while the ministry has brought costs down through enormous economies of scale, “buy US” pressures could make it hard for China to export the necessary equipment to the US.

The railways ministry has concluded a framework agreement to license its technology to GE, which is a world leader in diesel locomotives but has little experience with the electric locomotives needed for high speeds.

According to GE, the agreement calls for at least 80 percent of the components of any locomotives and system control gear to come from US suppliers, and labor-intensive final assembly would be done in the US. China would license its technology and supply engineers as well as up to 20 percent of the components.

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