Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fixing the Past: high-speed rail is the wrong instrument

A number of State politicians have been pursuing this issue for some time.  In California, there has been legislation in the pipeline requiring that the CHSRA does not contract with any European organizations that were involved in the Holocaust. 

Although most of this effort is directed at SNCF, the French HSR corporation and operator, other companies, such as Siemens, also have something to answer for.

(Disclosure: I'm a Jewish emigrant from Germany (September -1937) who, with his parents, fled the Holocaust) My take on all this is that the Europeans who were responsible for active participation in the Holocaust horrors are mostly dead or close to it.  

If we were to be consistent and conscientious about this moral position, we should not be buying Mercedes, BMW, Audi, Porsche (VW, Hitler's "the Peoples' Car"),and many other products from Germany now found on our American shelves.  Many of these companies obtained "free" slave labor from the Concentration Camps. Many Jews died in their service. 

While one can argue that a corporation does have moral responsibility, it still comes down to individual persons.  Are the French persistently anti-Semitic?  I suppose so.  Yet, acknowledgements and apologies tend to be polite evasions.  The Germans, recognizing this, have been making financial reparations to Jews who were surviving victims or to the relatives of victims who perished. I suppose the French could do the same.  SNCF could apologize directly to World Jewry for their WW II participation in moving victims to the camps. 

My own view is that whatever they do, it won't bring six million Jews back.  To me, it's permanently unforgivable.  And, by the way, even with all the Holocaust Museums in the world,  it certainly "can happen again."  

Furthermore, and this is my central point here, we have no business buying high-speed rail hardware from France, Germany or anywhere else.  If we can't manufacture it ourselves -- here in the US -- then all our verbiage about building this train because it creates jobs is horse hockey.  I don't know what the real political agendas are behind this ostensibly "moral" gesture of rejecting French HSR hardware. I'm not sure I care. 

Look, I respect and appreciate Tom Elias' editorial position and understand his intentions.  But, saying that Alstom should not be allowed to sell us trains until ". . . it acts to rectify past misdeeds." is inadequate and somewhat pointless.  There is no way that they can "rectify" past misdeeds.  Apologies or money won't fix anything they did 70 years ago. 

And that's not the reason we shouldn't be buying rail hardware from them.  We shouldn't be buying high-speed rail hardware from anyone because, for us, it's a terrible idea.  That's the whole point of this blog.

A moral imperative in high-speed rail project
By Tom Elias
Posted: 04/13/2011 06:32:29 PM PDT
Updated: 04/13/2011 07:12:26 PM PDT

Expect foreign companies galore to bid on major contracts for building components of California's planned high-speed rail system, the largest such project now planned anywhere in the world.

They will come from Germany and Japan and China, among others, because no American-based company now can provide all the elements needed to build the required locomotives and cars. Some, like the German-based Siemens AG (largely owned by American pension and mutual funds) already have plants in California.

One bidder will almost certainly be Alstom Group, a huge French-owned firm that built all the engines and coaches for France's smooth-as-silk TGV (Train a Grand Vitesse - or high-speed train) network. The current chief executive of California's High Speed Rail Authority, Roelof van Ark, previously was president of one wing of that company, Alstom Transportation Inc.

This outfit has built rail cars for the government-owned French SNCF national rail system since 1928 and is itself about 20 percent government owned after receiving a recession-related bailout.

But as good as Alstom's machinery is, and as strongly as van Ark may be associated with the firm, it should not be getting a nickel's worth of work from California or any other American state until the SNCF - its corporate sister and biggest customer - begins paying reparations for its role in the Holocaust.

The link between the SNCF and the slaughter of most French Jews during World War II? SNCF trains carried more than 76,000 deported French Jews to Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps. More than 97 percent were murdered.

This was acknowledged in a sideways manner last winter, when SNCF president Guillaume Pepy told an audience in an old train yard near Paris, "In the name of the SNCF, I bow down before the victims, the survivors, the children of those deported and before the suffering that still lives."

Oddly, Pepy never mentioned Jews, who made up more than 90 percent of those sent to their deaths, because of their very birth. His "apology" reminded some of a memorial plaque placed a few years ago near the entrance of the Gare du Nord station in Paris, which acknowledges, "From here, thousands of loyal Frenchmen were deported to their deaths." No specific apology to Jews, neither there nor in Pepy's words. That's in keeping with the longstanding French government reluctance to acknowledge the country's well-documented role in furthering the Holocaust.

Also, nary a word about reparations payments, the sincere form of apology Germany has been paying Holocaust survivors for many decades.

Instead, Pepy pretended SNCF was a victim. "The SNCF was forced and requisitioned as a cog in the Nazi extermination machine," he said. "We will never forget it." What he did apparently forget was the fact that the SNCF was paid both by the person and by the kilometer for each deportee it hauled.

"That was blood money and they've never paid a penny of it back," New York lawyer Harriet Taumen charges. She has filed a lawsuit seeking reparation payments for 600 Holocaust survivors who were forced onto SNCF trains at gunpoint.

It's undeniably true that some SNCF employees were resistance fighters and tried to sabotage the deportations, among other efforts. These included 1,647 SNCF personnel who were executed. But the rail firm's management cooperated fully.

There are many in California who believe the state's high- speed rail plan is ill-designed and bound to be extremely inefficient. It has major flaws, not least of which are parts of its planned route.

But the chances are that high-speed rail will become reality, in part because of intense interest from top levels of the federal government. Vice President Joe Biden voiced that enthusiasm the other day, comparing current plans to the original blueprint for the interstate highway system. "We expect 80 percent of Americans to have access to high-speed rail within 25 years," Biden said.

President Barack Obama has put cash where Biden's mouth is, earmarking about $4billion for the earliest work in California, to be done in the Central Valley, with $2.4billion more possible soon. 

Another $9 billion in state bonds is available.

It would be a moral mistake to let any tainted company, domestic or foreign, have part of that largesse before it acts to rectify past misdeeds.

Alstom's longstanding tight links to SNCF make it such a company. No bid should be accepted from French rail firms until and unless they move to divest themselves of any profits from their ferrying of innocents to their deaths by the scores of thousands.

That divestment should take the form of reparation payments to those whose lives were taken or scarred, or their heirs, in a manner much like what has been done since the 1950s by the German government and by companies which - like SNCF - profited from Nazi policies. Demanding anything less of Alstom and SNCF would simply be immoral.

Thomas D. Elias is a syndicated columnist who covers California issues (email: For more Elias columns, visit