A Chinese company Wednesday won a $1.3 billion contract for the largest rail car order in CTA history — rail cars that will feature fewer of the inward-facing seats that have raised howls from customers.
Only 47 percent of seats will face the aisles in the new Series 7000 cars that are expected to start debuting in 2020 and replace half the current fleet.
That compares to 89 percent in the CTA’s last rail car order — for Series 5000 cars. Their interior, similar to those of some New York City subway cars, was often compared to a “bowling alley.”
The deal for the next generation of CTA rail cars included a pledge that the winner of the bid — CSR Sifang America JV -— would create a final rail assembly plant in Chicago that would employ 169 skilled assembly line and management workers. Even more jobs are expected during the $16 million in construction work the plant will require.
The plant’s location is expected to be at 135th and Torrence in Hegewisch. Chicago last produced rail cars at the Pullman-Standard plant on the Far South Side. CTA, New York City and Amtrak rail cars were made there before the plant closed in 1982.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel hailed the CTA board’s Wednesday vote sealing the deal as “a day that will go down in history” because it will return rail-car manufacturing to Chicago after a nearly 35-year hiatus.
Finally, rail-car manufacturing “is coming home to Chicago,” Emanuel said.
CSR Sifang America JV is a joint venture of CRRC Qingdao Sifang Co. Ltd. of Qingdao, China, and CSR America, with offices in Chicago. CRRC is owned by the Chinese state and CSR America was established in 2010 to do business in the United States, a CTA spokesman said.
It beat out the only other bidder, Bombardier of Canada, which produced the CTA’s most recent Series 5000 rail cars. CSR’s bid was $226 million less than Bombardier’s, officials said.
CTA spokesman Brian Steele noted that there are no rail-car manufacturers left in the United States. Plus, when the CTA first bid out the Series 7000 project a few years ago, it only received two bids, from Bombardier of Canada and Sumitomo of Japan.
The sparse response prompted the CTA to rebid the project and, working with the Chicago Federation of Labor, to include a clause that required bidders to specify how many new U.S. jobs they would create. Emanuel was the first mayor in the country to include the “U.S. Employment Provision” in a transit project, CTA President Dorval Carter Jr. said Wednesday.
The new deal will reduce the average age of the CTA’s rail fleet from 26 years to 13 years, Carter said. It should help make the CTA’s rail cars “one of the youngest fleets in the country” and save $7 million annually in repairs, he said.
With presidential candidates now railing about the outsourcing of jobs, CTA board members voiced concern Wednesday about how much American work would result from the project. CTA staff responded that 19 of CSR’s 24 rail car suppliers have headquarters or facilities in the United States.
Plus, staff said, suppliers could eventually be inspired to move closer to the plant, bringing jobs with them. And, if successful, the Pullman plant could eventually expand, CTA officials said.
The new cars will include interior GPS-enabled LCD monitors displaying each train’s location, upcoming stops and service updates. Each car will hold 11 security cameras, instead of the more common nine.
The last CTA rail cars, purchased about a decade ago, packed in more riders but were roundly criticized for leaving seated passengers with their backs to the window, staring at the stomachs of standing commuters. Standing customers steadied themselves by grasping straps.
The 5000 series offered several “functional benefits,” such as faster entry and exit and doors so quiet that chimes had to be added to them for the visually impaired, the CTA’s Steele said.
But the seating configuration raised so many complaints that the CTA surveyed its customers before securing bids on its next generation of rail cars. Surveys clearly showed that riders preferred more of a mix of seating, Steele said.
The contract, worth up to $1.309 billion for 846 rail cars, will begin with 400 rail cars, at a cost of $632 million. After prototypes are tested, delivery should begin in 2020 at the rate of 10 cars a month, officials said.