What do urban subway trains have to do with a country’s national security? Very much, at least according to US Senator Charles Schumer representing the state of New York, who is also the Senate Minority Leader.

Schumer said on Sunday he was perturbed about new rolling stock from the Chinese state-owned CRRC bringing to the US new threats to national security.

The senator is thus demanding a “top-to-bottom review” of the Chinese train maker by the Commerce Department, the state government as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, to make sure that new rolling stock will not expose the US rail system to cyber-espionage and sabotage, according to the Associated Press. CRRC won a design contest for New York City subway cars last year.

“Given what we know about how cyber warfare works, and recent attacks that have hit transport and infrastructure hubs across the country, the Department of Commerce must give the green light and thoroughly check any proposals or work China’s CRRC does on behalf of the New York subway system, including on our signals, wi-fi and more,” said the senator.

It is noteworthy, however, that Schumer is raising cautionary flags even before the Chinese firm is formally awarded a contract by New York subway, the nation’s largest public transportation system. However, the MTA was reportedly “tempted” after the firm proposed investing US$50 million, out of its own coffers, to develop a series of new rail cars tailor-made for the city.

The MTA stressed back then, nonetheless, that the contest was aimed at bringing out new ideas for future projects but did not lead to any immediate contracts for new cars, and nor did the authority have any immediate plans to purchase new cars as it had more than 6,400 of them on the roster.

The MTA held a design contest last year as a part of its initiative to modernize its train cars in service. Photo: Asia Times

“This kind of national security responsibility is just so big, and so complex, that the MTA and other big-city transit systems should not have to foot the burden of going it alone to assess whether or not CRRC’s low bids for work, and current contracts across the country, are part of some larger strategy. We just cannot be too careful here, especially now, amidst these tensions and general cyber threats,” Schumer said.

The Chinese giant, which is overtaking Alstom and Siemens in annual output, is also on track to modernize Boston’s subway system under a US$843 million deal struck in 2014 with the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. The project will see a total of 404 cars being built locally in the state.

Massachusetts Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack speaks at a CRRC subway car unveiling in Boston. Photo: Handout
A rail car at CRRC’s plant in Massachusetts. Photo: China News Service

Besides Boston, CRRC trains are breaking into the markets in Los Angeles, Chicago and Philadelphia, with cost-effectiveness meaning that deep discounts are on offer, as these cities embark on their respective programs to replace antiquated locomotives and cars.

CRRC is also believed to be pursuing a US$500 million contract with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority in Washington.

Security experts and some US lawmakers have pointed out that, like any state-owned enterprise, CRRC is at Beijing’s beck and call. They also fear cyber threats and hacking attacks once the firm gains access to America’s rail system.

CRRC, however, insists that its rail cars meet specific requirements set by transit agencies, it did not control the cyber components installed in its trains, nor would it be possible for the company to implant malware. It says that scenarios about its subway trains endangering America’s national security are far-fetched.

But AP reported that legislation had been introduced in both the House and Senate which, if passed, would prevent federal funds from being used for rail projects involving Chinese companies.

The call to scrutinize CRRC trains as well as its operations as a whole came hot on the heels of US President Donald Trump’s executive order to blacklist Chinese telecommunications behemoth Huawei and mandate all American suppliers and clients to cut ties with Huawei on national security grounds, after Washington and Beijing traded accusations and tit-for-tat tariffs as talks to resolve protracted trade disputes stalled.

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