US workers learn how to make Chinese subway cars
Training program for Massachusetts factory brings 33 men and women to Jilin
It was just the beginning of an incredible journey that transformed China into a major player in rail technology. Back in the 19th century, 30 pupils traveled to the United States as part of an educational mission from the imperial court of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).
One of them was 12-year-old Zhan Tianyou, who would later be known as the "Father of China's Railways" after he was selected in the group to learn the business in Springfield, Massachusetts.
Nearly 150 years later, that small US city will be home to a factory that builds rail coaches and is part of China Railroad Rolling Stock Corp's subsidiary in Massachusetts.
To complete the circle, 33 employees from the Springfield operation arrived in April at CRRC's manufacturing plant in Changchun, Jilin province, for a three-month training course in Northeast China.
Springfield is home to 154,000 people and will become a manufacturing center for assembling CRRC rail coaches by 2018.
The $95 million factory is part of a $566.6 million deal with Boston's transit authority, signed in October 2014, to build 284 rail cars for the city's subway system.
The rail cars will replace the aging fleet connecting Cambridge to downtown Boston by 2023.
"Economically, I think it (the plant) will have a large impact, not just on Springfield but Boston itself," said Tammie Vancini, one of the 33 US employees being trained in Changchun.
China has come a long way with bullet trains since revamping its rail network at the beginning of the 21st century. And leading the way has been CRRC.
Before it entered the global market, the world rail engine and coach industry was dominated by big names such as Japan's Hitachi and Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, Siemens of Germany and Bombardier in Canada.
But now, China is a leading exporter of railway engines, including bullet trains and electric multiple units, as well as coaches.
CRRC's total value of orders from abroad surged by 40 percent year-on-year to $8.1 billion in 2016. About 83 percent of countries with railroads use CRRC products.
"China has demonstrated its competitive edge in high-speed rail technology over the past few years," said Wang Mengshu, a railway expert and academician at the Chinese Academy of Engineering in Beijing.
It is this "competitive edge" that has fast-tracked CRRC into a global company with a subsidiary in Springfield, a traditional railway hub.
CRRC has built a global network of 75 subsidiaries from Malaysia to South Africa, including 13 research and development centers in the United Kingdom, the US and Germany.
At the Changchun plant, the 33 US employees were given a monthlong classroom course in theory training when they arrived.
"After that, they will spend two months working in the assembly section and will be involved in the rail cars for the Boston project at the CRRC Changchun plant," said Sun Gang, a training specialist for the Boston project at the CRRC Changchun Railway Vehicles Co, a subsidiary of the parent company CRRC.
Once running, the Springfield plant is expected to create around 150 local jobs, according to the company.
For Vancini and her colleagues, the training program offers opportunities for career development. Delighted to be involved in the company, she revealed that production will start after the Springfield workers return home.
"The better we do, the better the company does, and at this point it means more industries coming back here," said Vancini, who is an electrical assembler at the plant after previously working as a telecommunications installation technician.
"It means people in our neighborhoods are going to be getting jobs, people will get the chance to go back into manufacturing."
Richard Hernandez, a supervisor on the assembly team, knows the Springfield investment will be a big boost for the city's economy and a welcome return to rail production.
"The company is bringing more work to the area," he said. "And we are also building great designed products."
Training specialist Sun felt a new era was dawning in cooperation as he worked alongside the US employees.
Once they have finished their training, they will be able to pass on their knowledge to new workers at the Springfield factory, where car production is to go online in April 2018 with cars entering service between 2019 and 2023.
"Our US staff will become workforce pioneers for the plant," Sun said. "They will be able to manufacture rail cars for the US market as well as train other employees at the Springfield factory in the future."
Yu Weiping, CRRC's vice-president, also has a vision when it comes to the high-profile venture.
He said that the Chinese group was eager to be involved in a new high-speed rail culture in the US after investments in Springfield and Chicago.
In 2016, CRRC Sifang, a CRRC unit, was awarded a $1.3 billion contract by the Chicago Transit Authority to supply more than 840 new rail cars to replace approximately half the agency's fleet. As part of the contract, the company agreed to make the rail cars inChicago.
That plant will be on 18 hectares in the Hegewisch neighborhood and will employ about 170 people, the majority of them being skilled sheet metal and electrical workers.
CRRC Sifang America will spend $7 million to train the factory workers, according to a statement from Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel's office. Production will begin in early 2019 and, after testing, the rail cars are expected to be on the tracks by 2020.
The company also hopes to land high-speed rail contracts in the US.
New techniques, such as "smart manufacturing", also will help cut costs at the Springfield plant. This use of high-end technology will improve the efficiency in rail car production.
"Workers will be able to view all the materials on screens and report any problems during the daily production process via a full wireless network coverage in the plant," said Liu Zongmin, vice-general manager at CRRC's Springfield operation.
Luo Zhaoqiang, chief operator at the CRRC Changchun center, took the training group through the debugging procedures in the manufacturing equipment in case of major problems or breakdowns.
"I've never seen such a debugging machine before," said Michael Dee, a test technician and a member of the US staff. "With the help of the new device, we can easily simulate a real problem and then learn to repair it on the machine."
Hong Xiao in Springfield, Massachusetts, contributed to this story.
Contact the writers at firstname.lastname@example.org
US workers from Massachusetts visit the display of a rail car at China Railroad Rolling Stock Corp's factory in Changchun, Jilin province, after arriving for training in April.[Cui Zhongxia / For China Daily]
Luo Zhaoqiang, chief operator at the CRRC's Changchun center, interacts with an employee from the United States during a training session in April.Zhang Nan/xinhua