French make a pitch for Florida's rail business

Anne-Marie Idrac, France's foreign trade minister, speaking in Florida. "It is 21st-century life!" she said of hopes for U.S. high-speed rail.
Anne-Marie Idrac, France's foreign trade minister, speaking in Florida. "It is 21st-century life!" she said of hopes for U.S. high-speed rail.
Posted: August 10, 2010

MIAMI BEACH, Fla. - The lights went down in the hotel conference room, the music came up, and the French made their pitch.

On a large screen before a crowd of Florida business and government leaders, a dramatic video began to play, infused with all the cinematic suspense of a rocket launch or a Super Bowl game.

In docudrama detail, the video showed the 2007 world-speed-record run of a French TGV train.

Over the sound of swelling music and hissing brakes vaguely reminiscent of Darth Vader's breathing, the moving images flashed by: A nervous engineer. An expectant control room. A film crew on a chartered jet. French citizens waving from highway overpasses. And the sleek star of the show, a silver-blue Alstom V150 electric train, racing through the countryside of eastern France.

As the train reached 574.8 kilometers per hour (357 m.p.h.), some in the room whistled and clapped. How could they get one of those?

Not to worry, French Foreign Trade Minister Anne-Marie Idrac assured when the lights came up. This could be Florida's future. This could be America's future.

"I was on that train," said Idrac, who used to be the chief executive of the French national railway, SNCF. "How wonderful it was to see the people on the bridges with flags. I hope, as soon as possible, it will be the same in Florida."

Idrac came to Florida, along with representatives of SNCF and train manufacturer Alstom Transport, to win hearts and minds - and, eventually, contracts.

The United States will be one of the world's great markets for high-speed railroading if the Obama administration succeeds in creating high-speed corridors throughout the country.

Since the United States has no high-speed rail industry of its own, foreign manufacturers such as Alstom (France), Siemens (Germany), Bombardier (Canada), Talgo (Spain), and Central Japan Railway (Japan) are vying to sell their train systems here.

The prize is huge. Hundreds of billions of dollars may be spent on trains and tracks and stations and electronic signals and ticketing systems in the United States. U.S. law requires foreign companies to use American workers and American materials, but the expertise and technology will come from overseas.

(Even Amtrak, the government-subsidized U.S. passenger rail company, gets its equipment from foreign manufacturers operating in this country. Amtrak's Acela locomotives, which travel up to 150 m.p.h. for brief stretches, were built by Alstom and Bombardier.)

Consider the money at stake: The first leg of the Florida system, from Tampa to Orlando, could cost $3.5 billion. The full price tag, including a Miami leg, could reach $11.5 billion. A Texas system, linking San Antonio, Dallas, and Houston, could cost $22 billion. California's proposed Los Angeles-to-San Francisco system is projected to cost about $45 billion.

In this railroading gold rush, Florida and California are the front-runners, attracting throngs of international train-makers and operators eager to tout their wares and their experience.

"The problems you are facing are the type of problems we have expertise solving," Idrac told the assembled Floridians. Chic and sophisticated with her French scarf and accent, she was an adept messenger for the notion that high-speed rail is not your father's railroad, but something très futuriste.

"It is life! It is 21st-century life!" she proclaimed, invoking, for comparison, Florida's storied role in the U.S. space program:

"It's so important to have a good image, a modern image," she said. "High-speed rail could be for you what space was. High-speed rail could be the 21st-century image for Florida."

In January, President Obama went to Tampa to announce the investment of $8 billion for 13 high-speed American rail projects, which he described as a down payment on the most significant advance in U.S. transportation since the interstate highway system was built more than a half-century ago.

Florida got $1.25 billion for a line to connect Tampa on the west coast with Orlando in the middle of the state, with plans to extend the track to Miami.

Only California got more - $2.3 billion for a high-speed line to carry trains at more than 200 m.p.h. between San Francisco and Los Angeles.

(Pennsylvania, by comparison, got a drop in the bucket - $25.6 million - or 0.3 percent of the total. It will go to improving the Philadelphia-to-Harrisburg "Keystone Corridor," which carries 14 Amtrak round-trips a day, and will include $750,000 for studying expansion of passenger service between Harrisburg and Pittsburgh, where one Amtrak train now operates daily in each direction.)

The foreign manufacturers know that success in the first U.S. rail corridors could mean more lucrative contracts in the future.

"Congress only needs one thing - they need to see one system that works, and all of a sudden it creates the momentum for everything else," said Jennifer L. Esposito, the majority staff director for the House subcommittee on railroads, pipelines, and hazardous materials. "Congress loves seeing what works."

Kevin Thibault, Florida's assistant secretary of transportation, said state officials hoped to seek bids for their rail project by the end of this year.

"Being the first one out, we're going to set the standard for the country," Thibault said. "The impediment will just be people getting used to something different."

Earlier this year, 106 members of the House (including eight lawmakers from Pennsylvania and South Jersey) wrote to Obama, asking for support for $50 billion over six years for high-speed rail construction, with a dedicated source of funding.

"We stand ready to help move your vision of high-speed rail closer to reality," the legislators wrote. "But given budget constraints, we cannot continue to rely on general authorizations and appropriations to finance high-speed rail. We need to identify a dedicated revenue source for high-speed rail, and we need your help to do that."

One of the authors of that letter, the chair of the House subcommittee on railroads, Rep. Corinne Brown (D., Fla.), told the Miami Beach assembly that the future lies in teaming up with foreign firms:

"I know we're playing catch-up, but we're ready to roll with the right partners."

That should be the French, said Francois LaCote, the Alstom senior vice president who was the director of the world-speed-record run and is the father of the newest generation of Alstom high-speed trains, the AGV.

A balding, elegantly dressed engineer, LaCote said Alstom would like to team up with SNCF to offer Florida a whole system of infrastructure, rolling stock, and management.

Because of French expertise in marketing, ticketing, and fares, as well as designing and building trains, "our experience is very valuable," said LaCote. "It would be a pity not to try to use it."

Contact staff writer Paul Nussbaum at 215-854-5487 or

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