Chinese officials got a look at what Fresno has to offer in a visit Saturday to learn about California's proposed high-speed rail project.
Fresno business and elected leaders had a daylong meeting with delegates from China's Ministry of Railways and China Railway Construction Corp. to discuss the area's high-speed rail future.
Work on the first segment of high-speed tracks in the state could begin as early as 2012 between Fresno and Bakersfield. Fresno also hopes to be chosen as the site for a maintenance depot to service the trains. Fresno Works, a coalition of city and county officials, say the maintenance facility could provide as many as 1,500 permanent jobs for area residents.
Building the tracks, selling locomotives and operating the system are the focus of China's interest in California and the Valley, said Jeffrey J. Chang of the Prometheus Investment Group, a company that specializes in U.S./Chinese business deals.
The same group also met with light-rail transportation agencies in the Bay Area. "But high-speed rail is the ultimate goal," Chang said, "and the company is looking forward to participating in this megaproject in California."
CRCC, a state-owned enterprise, is China's second largest construction company. Its operations fall under the supervision of the government's Ministry of Railways. The ministry oversees a rapidly growing network of conventional and high-speed trains in the People's Republic of China.
"In the last 10 years, China has built more miles of high-speed rail than any other country in the world," Chang said. "But their attitude is quite humble. They are here to learn about the political landscape and the employment landscape. They are looking for local partners to show them how this game is played here."
Fresno, Chang added, "is at the top of their list of places they wanted to visit."
Assembly Member Henry T. Perea said the Chinese first expressed interest in Fresno when he and other legislators visited China in November. That was shortly after the Obama administration directed that about $3 billion in federal funds for California's high-speed system must be used to begin construction in the Valley.
"Once that happened, they became very interested in the Valley," Perea said. "They told me they wanted to come to Fresno in particular."
Perea's father, Fresno County Supervisor Henry R. Perea, said the China delegation spent the morning hearing presentations about California's environmental review process and when and how the California High-Speed Rail Authority expects to seek bids for the first segment of construction.
"Fresno is ground zero for the beginning of construction for high-speed rail in the state," the elder Perea said. "They are looking at maps, and they're looking at sites to build a manufacturing plant."
The Chinese are among many suitors for California's high-speed rail business. The California High-Speed Rail Authority has agreements with the governments of China, Japan, France, Germany, Spain, Italy, Belgium and South Korea to exchange information about high-speed rail planning, construction, operation and maintenance.
Fresno Works expects to hold similar meetings with companies based in several other countries as California's planning moves ahead. Fresno officials also plan to visit China in May.
It will be up to the state rail authority, however, to select which companies or consortiums win contracts to build, and perhaps operate, California's system.
"We're prepared to partner internationally with whoever the authority picks," Henry R. Perea said. "We're hoping for hiring of Valley companies and Valley labor. That will be a win at all levels."
Roelof van Ark, CEO of the California High-Speed Rail Authority, said meetings like Saturday's in Fresno "are exactly what we expect to happen."
Van Ark said some foreign companies with experience in high-speed trains -- such as Germany's Siemens, Japan's Kawasaki, South Korea's Hyundai and France's Alstom -- already have partners or subsidiaries in the U.S.
"But it's clear this will be a local project," van Ark said. "All these international companies must find American partners to work with ... and we're encouraging these international groups and local agencies to talk to each other."