CHICAGO (CBS) — The CTA’s board Wednesday approved the largest single purchase of rapid transit cars in Chicago history, giving the contract to a Chinese rail manufacturer that has promised to build a final assembly plant on the city’s Far South Side.

The CSR/Sifang America JV contract calls for the purchase of up to 846 rapid transit cars, at a cost (with inflation) of $1.4 billion if all options are exercised. The base purchase of 400 cars alone would cost $632 million.

In choosing CSR, CTA bypassed Bombardier, which built its 5000-series cars, the last of which was delivered just five months ago. CTA Vice President/Purchasing Ellen McCormick said the CSR/Sifang proposal was $226 million less than the bid submitted by Montreal-based Bombardier.

CTA officials said riders will see several major improvements when the prototype 7000-series cars arrive in late 2019. There will be full-width on-board LED screens capable of giving both of automated time and stop information, and real-time transit information in the event of delays or reroutes.

Seating on the 5000-series has been a sore point with many riders, who dislike its mostly aisle-facing seats. The 7000s will feature more front- and back-facing seats, although the front end seating will still be aisle-facing.

“This is sort of starting from scratch, with input from the CTA on how we want the cars built,” CTA Vice President/Rail Vehicle Maintenance Donald Bonds said.

(Source: CTA)

Rendering of the interior of the new 7000-series CTA rail cars, to be built by China-based CSR/Sifang America JV. (Source: CTA)

The CSR order is intended to replace the agency’s remaining 2600 series cars, purchased between 1981 and 1987, Bonds said.

When the 7000-series cars are delivered in 2024, CTA will have the newest fleet of rapid transit cars in the nation, according to Bonds. He said the average age of a CTA ‘L’ car will be 13 years. By comparison, Boston has an average fleet age of 27 years, Washington, D.C. averages 25 years, New York averages 22 years and San Francisco averages 18 years.

CSR/Sifang is also manufacturing rapid transit cars for Boston. McCormick said she was unsuccessful in efforts to obtain information from the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) on the acceptance of the railcars CSR is building for the Boston agency. She said discussions with a top executive of an Argentinian agency that is buying new rail cars from CSR that quality has been “excellent” and that delivery has been on or ahead of schedule and on budget.

The Chicago final assembly plant is expected to be built at 135th Street and Torrence Avenue, and would employ 169 people. Of 24 suppliers for the project, McCormick said 19 have headquarters or facilities in the U.S., 16 of which CTA currently does business with or has in the past.

The contract calls for the first prototypes to be delivered in October 2019. If the cars prove to be acceptable, the full production cars would be delivered beginning in October 2020, at a rate of 10 cars a month.

CTA will have the right to stop work on the cars for any reason, should a problem arise. Nothing is paid until cars are accepted by the CTA. Failure to deliver cars on time will result in fines of $300 per day per car.