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Bill would expose Calif. high-speed train contractors with Holocaust ties

(The following story by Mike Rosenberg appeared on the San Mateo County Times website on June 22, 2010.)

SAN MATEO, Calif. — Train companies and foreign governments that helped support the Holocaust could be barred from working on the California high-speed railroad under a new bill in the Legislature.

The legislation would not exempt governments or companies such as France's bullet-train operator, whose locomotives once transported prisoners to concentration camps, from bidding for a piece of the state's $43 billion project starting next year.

But it would allow the California High-Speed Rail Authority to disqualify any of those companies or governments based solely on their ties to World War II atrocities, specifically from 1942 to 1944.

If contractors fail to provide evidence they played a role in the Holocaust — and officials later find they did — they would face stiff penalties. The contractors would not be able to bid on any state projects for three years and face a fine equal to double the cost of their initial bid, or $250,000, whichever is larger. They could also be sued by the firms that came in second or third in the bidding.

Firms should begin bidding on the project next year, with virtually all the $43 billion in construction costs up for grabs among private companies, plus nations with high-speed rail experience, such as China, Japan, Germany, France and Spain. Construction on the San Francisco-to-Los Angeles line, including the section that will run along Caltrain tracks, would begin as early as fall 2012.

The high-speed rail project is a hot topic in the Bay Area, which has the third-largest Jewish population of any metropolitan area in the country, according to the Jewish Community Federation. But it was high-speed rail supporter and Assemblyman Bob Blumenfield, D-Los Angeles, who on Friday introduced AB 619, the "Holocaust Survivor Responsibility Act."
"When I think about what (Holocaust survivors) went through, they basically escaped death, some of them literally jumped off the train, their entire families were killed," said Blumenfield, who is Jewish.

"That history could chase them across time and country, and there could be a train made by the very same company (that took them to the camps) less than a few miles from their house," he said. "If that company hasn't made amends by then, that to me is unconscionable."

Although not named in the bill, Blumenfield makes note of one company in particular: SNCF. Otherwise known as the French National Railway Corporation, SNCF now operates most of France's rail system, including the TGV high-speed trains. Blumenfield claims they profited off transporting prisoners from France to concentration camps in Auschwitz, Buchenwald and elsewhere, and have not made proper reparations.

Attempts to reach SNCF representatives Monday were unsuccessful.

California has about 30 Holocaust survivors, and most are at least 90 years old, according to Blumenfield's office.

The bill heads to its first hearing June 29 before the Assembly Transportation Committee. The rail authority said Monday it has not yet taken a position on the bill.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

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