Proposed Rule Aims to Make Sure Freight Rail Cars Aren’t Made in China

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Dec 11 2023 |
Freight trains pictured at the Port of Los Angeles. Getty Images

The Federal Railroad Administration is officially proposing that new freight cars cannot be built in a “country of concern.”

The federal government could soon take a step forward in better securing the nation’s freight railways, as it is considering placing new restrictions on new freight rail cars put into service.

A proposed rule by the Federal Railroad Administration would “limit content that originates from a country of concern (COC) or is sourced from a state-owned enterprise (SOE),” along with “prohibiting the use of sensitive technology that originates from a COC or SOE.” Put more simply, the rule means rail cars cannot be manufactured in countries “on U.S. watchlists for raising U.S. national security concerns” or those that have violated U.S. intellectual property laws, FreightWaves reported.

And as the outlet noted, that effectively means one country: China.

The rule has its origins in the SAFE TRAINS Act, which was sponsored by Sens. John Cornyn (R-Texas) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wis.) and eventually made its way into the infrastructure legislation passed by Congress in 2021. Cornyn and Baldwin were also sponsors of the Transit Infrastructure Vehicle Security Act (TIVSA), which also passed Congress and prohibits federal taxpayer dollars from being allocated to state-owned enterprises to build passenger rail cars and buses.

For both freight and passenger rail, there is valid concern that government-owned companies like CRRC are essentially tools of the Chinese state, aiming to seize market share and eventually dominate entire industries. That would create a major security risk, as the United States could find itself reliant on its chief geopolitical adversary for its railway needs.

And that’s not the only risk, as Rail Security Alliance (RSA) Executive Director Erik Olson told FreightWaves.

Freight cars aren’t “the dumb boxcars that we see in the movies. These are highly interconnected vehicles that have a lot of data and will increasingly have more,” he explained. “Not only will they have some automated features, whether it’s for opening and closing doors and release valves and other things, but also monitoring software. … It’s one thing to have to protect the system from outside intrusion. It’s another to let the intruders into the system.” 

The proposed rule has the backing of industry groups like RSA and the Railway Supply Institute. The United Steelworkers (USW) and the American Iron and Steel Institute (AISI) were among the organizations who urged Congress “to consider placing restrictions on the manufacturing origins of freight rail cars,” FreightWaves noted.

The deadline for comments on the proposed rule is Feb. 6, 2024.