For perpetually cash-strapped public transportation agencies, buses and railcars made by Chinese companies have been a godsend.
CRRC — the train-maker that won the MBTA’s contract for new Orange and Red Line trains in 2014 — is building them at a factory it opened in Springfield. The company offered savings of more than $100 million compared with established manufacturers like Kawasaki, Hyundai, and Bombardier. Other agencies have bought zero-emission electric buses from BYD, capitalizing on China’s investments in clean transit technology.
Taxpayer savings? Cleaner air? American blue-collar jobs? You might imagine Congress would applaud. But instead, lawmakers from both parties are seeking to prevent agencies from using federal funds to buy vehicles from companies like CRRC and BYD, ostensibly in the name of national security. House Democrats roasted the companies in a hearing last week, and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer has demanded a security probe.
Lawmakers should ask questions, but until they can produce real evidence of safety risks posed by trains or buses sold by Chinese companies, it looks more like a misguided protectionist effort that could hobble the budgets of public transit agencies.
CRRC manufactures the shells of it trains in China and then ships them to the Springfield facility, which employs 102 workers. The trains are subject to all US safety laws. The MBTA was the first US transit agency to order from CRRC, but since then the Chinese government-owned company has won contracts from subway systems in Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles. BYD also operates an American bus factory, employing hundreds of unionized American workers.
Opponents of the purchases say the trains could be vulnerable to hacking, or come with secret spying equipment that relays the movements of American transit passengers back to the Chinese government. It’s all a bit far-fetched: CRRC does not provide any of the train’s software, and a T spokesman says the agency follows Pentagon cybersecurity standards.
The fears have been ginned up by an outfit called the Rail Security Alliance, which in turn is affiliated with US railcar manufacturers like Greenbrier. Those companies do not make subway trains — no American firm does — but they do make freight rail cars, and fear that if Chinese firms establish a toehold in the American rail market they’ll eventually expand into the freight business. They accuse the Chinese government of subsidizing the companies, making it an unfair fight.
Those are valid fears — for trade regulators to address when and if Chinese state-owned companies try to break into the freight car market. Trying to generate national security fears over buses and subway trains, though, is unwarranted. Thankfully House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, whose California district includes the BYD factory, recently blocked legislation that would have prevented the electric-bus company from receiving federal contracts.
Keeping a careful eye on the trains is one thing. But any legislative effort to prevent agencies from buying from Chinese companies simply because they are affiliated with the Chinese government would only restrict the options for cities trying to reduce traffic, combat climate change, or just replace worn-out old equipment.
It’s not like federal subsidies for transit are lavish; the least the government can do is let agencies stretch their dollars further when they have the opportunity.