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Security Concerns Prompt Congress To Move Toward Banning Chinese Railcars


While the Trump administration tussles with China over trade policy, Congress is also about to take steps to counter Beijing. Lawmakers may soon bar large city transit agencies from using federal money to buy rail cars and buses that were built in China. NPR's Brian Naylor has that story.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The focus of lawmakers and industry's concern is a company called CRRC, a Chinese-owned rail car manufacturer. Robert Puentes is president of the Eno Center for Transportation, a nonpartisan transportation think tank. He says CRRC dominates the market for rail cars in China.

ROBERT PUENTES: And they intend to corner the global market here in the United States. And they have successfully won bids, all above board, in places like Boston and Chicago and Los Angeles and Philadelphia by adhering to the rules that these agencies in these cities have laid out.

NAYLOR: CRRC has built two American plants, one in Massachusetts and one in Illinois, where it assembles the rail cars. The shells are imported from China. Other parts are made in the U.S. Puentes says there are no American companies that make these rail cars, although there are U.S. firms that make freight cars. Other transit systems rely on other foreign-based manufacturers.

California Democrat Harley Rouda is chief sponsor of legislation that would ban the transit systems from using federal money to buy the Chinese rail cars. He says the U.S. should not be supporting a company subsidized by the Chinese government.

HARLEY ROUDA: We think it's important that American taxpayers' hard-earned dollars and the money that they have provided to the federal government not go to support Chinese companies bent on undermining industries that are important to our national security.

NAYLOR: Rouda says, aside from the economic implications, there are important national security concerns.

ROUDA: Just think for a minute that if you ever ended up in hostilities with a country that controlled those railways and those bus systems - what the economic impact and the national security threat it would cause to a country such as the United States.

LYDIA RIVERA: Well, those are exaggerated statements.

NAYLOR: Lydia Rivera is spokesperson for CRRC's Massachusetts-based division. She says the worries that China might use the rail cars it builds to spy on Americans or hack their data is misinformation.

RIVERA: These are unfounded concerns, unfortunately, by lobbyists. And none of the so-called at-risk systems on our rail cars pose a threat.

NAYLOR: Backers of the ban include U.S. freight car manufacturers who worry the Chinese will target their business. Rivera says that's not going to happen.

RIVERA: No, we have no interest in the freight industry. We have no interest in the freight industry. It is not lucrative for us, and we will not be going to the freight industry.

NAYLOR: She says a ban on federal funds could mean the loss of 185 jobs at the Massachusetts factory. Robert Puentes at the Eno Center believes the national security concerns over the Chinese-built rail cars are a bit overblown and says it's part of a larger debate.

PUENTES: I think there's no doubt that this is being caught up in larger issues between the United States and China. The trade war conversations, just global cybersecurity concerns, concerns about economic security between United States and China - all these are being wrapped up in the same thing. But we have to understand that it really is highly nuanced, and it's not as simple, I think, as some are making it out to be.

NAYLOR: The provision banning use of federal funds on Chinese rail cars is part of the House defense authorization bill. A similar provision also including the ban on spending on Chinese bus manufacturers is part of the Senate-passed measure. Congressman Rouda says he thinks the differences between the two chambers should be resolved quickly.

Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.