The concrete floors shine in the new $100 million factory on Chicago’s far South Side. Towering shelves painted in blue, yellow, and red are mostly empty. The quiet is eerie, punctuated only by a forklift’s occasional beep.
On a bank of 6-foot-high platforms rest the steel shells of five 48-foot-long passenger rail cars destined for the Chicago Transit Authority. Inside the cars, small clutches of workers trace multicolored bundles of wire. Outside, others in safety helmets and glasses attach HVAC equipment to the undercarriages. All work for the Chicago subsidiary of China Railway Rolling Stock Corp. And what they’re doing scares the hell out of some U.S. manufacturers and Washington politicians.
CRRC is the world’s largest maker of freight and passenger rail cars. Over the past decade, the state-owned Chinese company has gone from country to country underbidding rivals and taking business from giants such as Alstom, Bombardier, Siemens, and Hyundai’s rail unit, Rotem. When Siemens and Alstom tried to merge two years ago, before being blocked by European Union regulators, they cited the CRRC juggernaut as one rationale. The Chinese company effectively wiped out Australia’s homegrown rail car industry in less than a decade. Early in 2018, CRRC declared in a since-deleted tweet, “So far, 83% of all rail products in the world are operated by #CRRC or are CRRC ones. How long will it take for us conquering the remaining 17%?”