State seeks 'Buy America' exemption for prototype bullet trains

The Fresno BeeApril 8, 2014 

Conceptual view of high speed rail.

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Under federal "Buy America" laws, the California High-Speed Rail Authority and Amtrak will be required to buy new high-speed trains that are built in the U.S.

But as the two agencies await bids from manufacturers for dozens of sparkling new bullet train sets for California and for Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, they face a stark reality: there are no American companies currently building such equipment on American soil.

So in late February, the state rail agency and Amtrak each requested a waiver from the Federal Railroad Administration asking to be excused from the Buy America requirements. Each wants permission to purchase two prototype trains that are built overseas, but to American specifications, for testing purposes until the chosen manufacturer can build a production factory -- or modify an existing plant -- in the U.S. to build the trains.

The Citizens for California High-Speed Rail Accountability, a grass-roots group of high-speed rail foes in Kings County, is crying foul. In a letter to the FRA, the group denounced the state rail authority's waiver request as a possible end-run around the law. Buying trains from overseas, the group says, defeats one of the Obama administration's most important rationales for backing high-speed rail -- promoting the creation of American manufacturing jobs.

A public comment period ended March 29, and the FRA -- which has been working closely with the state rail authority for the past several years -- could announce a decision soon.

Joint procurement

Amtrak and the California agency jointly issued a request for bids in January for new "next generation" high-speed trains, specifying that the winning company must comply with requirements that the trains be American-made. That means that in addition to final assembly of the trains in the U.S., most of the components would also have to be produced in the U.S.

While some foreign companies have U.S. factories building locomotives, passenger cars or other components for conventional trains, none are building high-speed equipment here.

Bids for the trains -- at least 42 and potentially as many as 50 to 60 trains between the two agencies over the next decade -- are due in May, and a contract could be awarded as soon as December.

California's rail authority "decided to apply for a waiver in the event that the manufacturer that made the best offer wouldn't have the ability to assemble a prototype in America that meets the Authority's and Amtrak's strict schedules for procurement," said Lisa Marie Alley, the agency's press secretary.

More disappointment

That's little reassurance to Aaron Fukuda, a Hanford homeowner and co-founder of the citizen's group who is also suing the California rail authority over its statewide plans.

The waiver request "represents the authority's latest failure to meet their outlined objectives or what they promote to the public," he said Tuesday.

"They said these trains are going to be built in America," Fukuda added. "Granted, this is for the first train set, but I give them no credit that this will be the first or last (to be foreign-made). I think it'll be the first of many."

In his letter asking FRA Administrator Joseph Szabo to deny California's waiver request, Fukuda argued that the state agency "neglected reasonable planning" to comply with Buy America requirements. "Is 31/2 years not enough time to alert manufacturers about prospects for this prestigious and profitable contract?" he asked.

Having two prototypes that are built overseas means the authority would be able to start testing and training without having to wait for a company to ramp up U.S. production from scratch. "Since the goal is to begin revenue service in 2022, the manufacturer ... would need to be in the United States and have employees trained in the production and assembly of high-speed trains by that time," Alley said.

Each of California's train sets would be about 660 feet long and able to carry 450 to 500 passengers at speeds up to 220 mph. Amtrak's trains are expected to be built on a similar frame but would be shorter, carrying 400 to 450 passengers with peak speeds of about 160 mph.

Under the anticipated bid schedule, California's two prototype trains would be delivered by early 2019 for testing.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6319, tsheehan@fresnobee.com or @TimSheehanNews on Twitter.

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