Administration officials on Friday portrayed President Barack Obama's $8 billion high-speed train program as a jobs generator, announcing promises from European and Asian companies seeking rail contracts to employ U.S. workers.
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said at a rail manufacturing conference that more than 30 foreign and domestic companies have promised to establish or expand operations in the United States if they are chosen to build high-speed lines.
The commitments will ensure the rail program will create jobs in the U.S. and boost domestic manufacturing, LaHood said.
Mark Yachmetz, a Federal Railroad Administration official, told the conference: "We are trying to accomplish a rebirth of rail manufacturing."
The rail conference was held one day after Obama hosted a White House summit on job creation.
Paying only glancing attention to the transportation benefits of high-speed trains, LaHood said that if the rail program isn't preceived as "creating American jobs, it's not going to succeed."
He said he wants areas of high unemployment to get "top consideration" for rail manufacturing, and he mentioned Illinois, Michigan, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Illinois is Obama's home state, and the other three have been swing states in presidential contests.
The program is "one of the highest priorities" for Obama and Vice President Joe Biden, LaHood said.
The railroad administration has received applications from 24 states seeking $50 billion for high-speed rail projects, more than six times the money designated under the economic recovery program. The agency has also received applications from 34 states totaling $7 billion for projects involving trains traveling at less than 110 mph, the rate defined as high-speed in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
The agency plans to announce early next year which projects will receive funds.
Most of the world's largest and most experienced rail engineering, construction and manufacturing firms are based outside the United States. Europe and Japan have extensive high-speed rail systems and well-developed industries to support them, giving them a leg up on potential U.S. competitors.
The only truly high-speed rail service in the U.S. is Amtrak's Acela Express, which operates between Washington and Boston. The trains can reach speeds of 150 mph, but average less than 100 mph. Some trains in Europe and Asia reach speeds over 200 mph and average 150 mph or more.
Foreign firms have been avidly pitching their expertise to states that have applied for funds. Trade missions have crisscrossed the country, and LaHood has met with a raft of ambassadors and transportation ministers.
Among the companies and their domestic subsidiaries the Transportation Department said have committed to create or expand operations in the U.S. if they win rail contracts are Bombardier Inc. of Canada, Alstom SA of France, Talgo SA of Spain, Siemens AG of Germany, Hyundai Rotem Co. of South Korea and and Kawasaki Rail Car Inc. of Japan.