Rail car manufacturing is back in Chicago after some 50 years. Production on the new series of Chicago Transit Authority train cars recently got underway on Chicago’s Southeast Side.
CRRC Sifang America’s brand-new facility was built after the company was awarded the CTA contract in 2016. Workers spent a month training in China, where the company’s based. Earlier this month, components for the new rail cars started getting delivered.
While the contract has faced criticism because it went to a Chinese-owned company, CRRC Sifang says there aren’t any firms in the U.S. that make rail cars, and it stresses that 70 percent of the components are sourced from American companies.
The 380,000-square-foot facility has a myriad of stations for each stage of production – painting, assembly, weighing, and lots and lots of testing. One station is set up to replicate the dimensions of the narrowest places CTA trains navigate.
“We’re making sure that when the car pulls into a platform or into a tunnel that the car shell, the components, the hoses, and the cables do not touch anything,” said production manager Brian Vasquez.
Each station is set up so employees can work simultaneously on the interior and the underbelly. Vasquez notes that unlike larger regional rail cars that have lots of space-hogging components like a heating and cooling system on the roof, the CTA is different.
“With this particular car … all of those components are underfloor, so it’s kind of like a massive jigsaw underneath to figure out how to get all those major components underfloor at one time,” Vasquez said.
Inside the car, he points out some features that riders are more likely to notice, including what the experience will be like in – the saloon?
“The saloon is where the CTA riders will be,” Vasquez explained. “We have the traverse seats and the longitudinal seats, just like in the old CTA.” (That is, some seats face forward or backward, and some seats face the center of the car.)
The new seats are also cantilevered above the floor of the car instead of sitting on a pedestal “so that those cleaning folks can get in and out quickly and they can get everything now,” Vasquez said. “Instead of having to go underneath and around the pedestal, they just (go) from one end to the other.”
Another new feature: more cameras in each car, visible to both operator and passengers.
Production on the first two rail cars is already underway. They expect to finish the first 10 by the end of 2019 and then hand them off to the CTA for a full year of putting them through their paces, testing them in summer, fall, winter and spring.
Once the CTA approves the new rail cars, the CRRC facility can go into full production. It’s contracted to produce 846 cars over the next 10 years.
“Right now there’s about 73 or so employees. We keep adding more which is nice because the production is getting started. At full capacity that number is still unknown at this point,” said Marina Popovic, human resources director and chief legal counsel. “Once those prototypes are tested and we get the thumbs up … we’ll really ramp up the recruiting.”
The company focused on hiring locally, with a recruiting campaign it says started in the facility’s home base in the 10th Ward and moved out from there.
“It’s like on Christmas when you open up a present and it has to be put together,” said electrical foreman Perry Nobles. “If you make one it probably takes an hour, but the second one probably only takes 10 minutes, you know what I mean?”
Even though workers are still getting up to full speed, the company eventually hopes to land contracts in other cities to keep the facility busy for many years to come.
“We haven’t built trains here in Chicago for many decades now, and to be a part of a team and a company that’s making trains from scratch – that’ll actually be running on CTA lines – is almost unbelievable, it’s surreal,” Nobles said.
After production and testing, the first of the new 7000 series rail cars are on track to go into regular service next year. They’ll eventually make up about half of the CTA’s fleet.