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July 2012 Baselines: Westinghouse Air Brake Company

The Inventor Of The Air Brake For Trucks, Trains, And Transportation

Text By Bill Senefsky

The Inventor of the Air Brake For Trucks, Trains, and Global Transportation
With the great explosion of inventors and their achievements in the 1800s, one of the greatest was George Westinghouse. A man of a variety of interests, one of his success stories was the invention of the air brake for trucks. The transportation field would probably have progressed on its own without Westinghouse’s air brake—but certainly not as fast. Beginning with this enormous step forward in safety technology (that eventually was used in the rail, marine, and diesel trucking industries), Westinghouse’s company went on to see many derivatives over the last century and a half but still remains alive and well today.

Heavy Industry
Schenectady, New York, a city that thrived on its foundation of the American railroad and the production of steam locomotives, was the birthplace of Westinghouse. Surrounded by this industry from birth, little Westinghouse grew up in a rural farming community. At a young age he was exposed to both farm industry business procedures and the construction of farm machinery, their operation, and most importantly, their care, due to his father’s equipment business. Regardless of his being exposed to this rather exciting environment, the 15-year-old lad ran away from home during the Civil War to join the Union Navy. The result of this life-changing adventure was that he was trained as a shipboard engineering officer, a position of some distinction. With the ending of hostilities, he returned to civilian life and attended Union College in his hometown. Like other inventors of his time, he dropped out after a mere three months to pursue more exciting venues. By the end of 1865, Westinghouse had already received a couple of patents; one for the design of an improved rotary steam engine, and another for a safety device that remounted derailed freight cars.

His eventual cash cow moneymaking device found its roots in a severe train wreck, which occurred in 1866. Two freight trains traveling on level track suddenly found themselves crashing head on. Even though both engineers immediately saw each other at a distance, both were unable to stop their trains in time. The cause was obvious. During this period, trains found themselves traveling at unproductive speeds due to the ineffective, cumbersome, slow method of braking each car individually. The crash meant the inventor found himself seriously delayed while traveling home.

At the time, the state-of-the-art train braking technology was a man called the brakeman. On cue, the brakeman’s task was to set the brakes on each car using a wooden pick handle. To further coordinate the train’s braking (so the cars did not slam into each other or cause a derailment), the brakeman had to turn the heavy iron wheels in unison upon hearing the engineer’s whistle. Routine stops were precarious, emergency procedures were unheard of, and train-traveling speeds were beyond slow.

Unified Braking Device
Westinghouse began working on a device that would unify and thus create a braking system controlled by the locomotive. His initial concept utilized a heavy-duty chain that would run the length of a train to unify the brakes of each car powered by a steam cylinder under the pulling locomotive. Each car would have an independent brake cylinder utilizing continuous steam pressure from the locomotive to prevent any slack in the chain. A major problem was how to create and connect the flexible couplings.

The inventor discovered an article involving compressed air pressure driving rock drills in the construction of a pipeline in the Italian Alps. There, 3,000-foot hoses were successfully used in this project. Air was compressed to 1⁄6 of its natural volume in this application. He applied this technology to his application with a patent for his air brake in April 1869. Westinghouse was 22 years old.

By the following September, the Westinghouse Air Brake Company had its incorporation papers. The following year, the company set up operations in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By 1875, 2,281 locomotives along with 7,254 cars were equipped with Westinghouse air brakes. Ongoing engineering changes were constantly made, allowing heavier loads to be carried at higher speeds with improved stopping power. With safer operating systems, America’s railroads doubled their miles of track between 1870 and 1880—and doubled again a decade later.

Obviously, foreign rail operators became interested in Westinghouse’s air brake technology, so the company started operations in France in 1878, the United Kingdom in 1881, Germany in 1884, Russia in 1899, Canada in 1903, Italy in 1906, and Australia in 1907. Homeland demand forced expansion first to Alleghany then to a full company town in Wilmerding, Pennsylvania.

Westinghouse continued to utilize his initial patented product to provide funding for his expansion into other fields of interest, with the formation of 60 additional enterprises. It should also be noted that he was a major competitor of Thomas Edison.

Financial Panic of 1907
Company divisions faced a severe crisis in 1907. As a result, Westinghouse found himself losing control of and selling many of his interests. The air brake operations remained firmly under his ownership. By 1911, however, old age required him to relinquish control of all his remaining operations, and he passed away in 1914.

The Westinghouse Air Brake division remained in good hands and was run by a management team made up of men who had risen through its ranks. Many management members had been with the company more than 40 years. During WWI, the company, like many others, supplied munitions and supporting gear to the Allied Forces. In 1917, true to its railroad heritage, the company took an interest in and purchased the Union Switch and Signal Company. Westinghouse had earlier developed a compressed-air-signaling system for the rail industry with this company. Now it was officially in the fold.

Diversification
Logically, the next step was the expansion of air brake operation into the municipal streetcar, subway trains, and high-speed interurban networks. In 1921, the company introduced pneumatic brakes for trucks, automobiles, and buses.

With hostilities again on the world horizon, the company continued to work on several unique projects. The Navy, recognizing the company’s leadership with compressed air, utilized the technology to develop a system for quickly reversing a ship’s course in times of emergency. Other pneumatic control systems were also expanded to the commercial maritime industry. Oil field operations and the mining and construction industry also utilized this technology with earthmoving equipment.

Decades of Change
In the ’60s, the company developed and introduced the first electronically controlled braking systems. Its initial application was on the Metroliner and rapid transit cars for public transportation. In 1968, the company was purchased by the bathroom fixture company American-Standard to be combined with its Railway Products Group, as a division known as Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO) Railway. This was during America’s so-called diversification period. American-Standard was also in the air-conditioning, building products, and transportation equipment business. The next several decades remained rather quiet for the division. Though the WABCO division did invent the first antilock brake system for vehicles—and went on to own the European ABS market.

In 1988, private investors took over American-Standard. Not surprising, in leveraging their purchase, the new owners had to sell off assets to pay down the massive debt incurred. The purchase price had been $2.3 billion. Within 24 months, American-Standard’s old management group purchased the rail division-braking group for $160 million. Going back to its roots, the company was named Westinghouse Air Brake Company (WABCO).

WABCO’s first order of business was the sale of its non-North American railway assets to the European Swedish holding company Cardo. WABCO North American sales during this period were around $200 million annually. The company’s management set new goals for the concern, including a new corporate culture, expanded aftermarket services, international awareness, and growth. The concept of continuous improvement was introduced, patterned after the Japanese model of kaizen. In the Westinghouse version of this manufacturing philosophy, employees, management, and customers held sessions together to maximize quality and productivity.

Going Public
The company went public in 1995. Trading on the New York Stock Exchange, it initially found its earnings weaker than expected. A declining market for many of its core products along with a glitch in a new braking system did not help matters.

Foreign expansion and diversification were again put into place. Developing markets of China, India, Russia, and South Africa were targeted. On the product side, an electronics products division was established. Vapor Corporation, a producer of subway car doors, was purchased in 1996, along with Australia’s Futuris Industrial. A year later, Stone Safety Service, along with its British counterpart, producers of air conditioning units for passenger transit in their prospective locations, was purchased.

A unique twist was the acquisition of Thermo King’s heavy-rail air conditioning division from Westinghouse Electric in 1997. That same year the company also purchased Italy’s H.P.S.r.l., a producer of door controls for transit railcars and buses, to expand its presence in the European market.

The Beat Goes On
The late ’90s found the company responding to America’s railway growth by pouring billions of dollars into improving its operations. Westinghouse broadened its aftermarket repair support, too, with the purchase of three railroad service centers for equipment upgrades from Comet Industries. This addition brought the number of centers owned by the company in the United States, Canada, and Mexico to a total of eight.

Lokring Corporation, a producer of advanced pipe connectors utilized for air-brake couplers, and Hadady Corporations’ transit coupler line were added to the business. Continuing, Westinghouse purchased the assets of Rockwell’s railroad electronics division for $80 million to be included in its brake and communications unit.

Globally, the company turned its attention to the vast railroad opportunities existing in India. Here was a country utilizing 7,000 locomotives, 330,000 freight cars, and 70,000 passenger cars. The other added attraction was the rail systems were converting from cast-iron to composition brake shoes.

RSF (E) Limited in England was a century-and-a-half-old provider of vehicle overhaul, maintenance, and equipment conversion for railway systems with the English, Welsh, and Scottish railways. It was purchased for debt assumption and $10 million. Rounding out 1998, the company established ties with MotivePower, a leading manufacturer of locomotive components, along with marine and industrial power markets. Initially, the two concerns formed a joint venture for the production of locomotive and railcar component products in MotivePower’s Mexican operations. Obviously, brake rebuilding started the venture, expanding into the repair and maintenance of railway equipment.

The Big Deal
Looking forward to a new century, WABCO identified the massive changes in its core markets. First, American railroads continued to merge, dropping from 10 branded lines to 5. Second, the 800 rail industry suppliers only had 13 in the $200 million sales club, and this was in a $25 billion market. WABCO had posted $670 million in 1998. The railroads were looking for bigger and fewer suppliers following industry trends.

A merger of equals (on paper at least) was struck with MotivePower and WABCO. The two firms appeared to complement each other and the stockholders appeared interested. The new organization would retain the MotivePower name and, when combined, constitute the largest rail parts player in the United States. The $557 million stock swap was announced in June 1999. By the following August, the deal began to unravel. First, combined earnings of both players fell far short of expectations. Stock prices of both concerns fell. Shareholders became uninterested. Renegotiations were begun, with the final result of WABCO taking over MotivePower with the new concern dubbed Wabtec. The year 2000 saw the new concern consolidating its operations. Employment was reduced by 9 percent, 9 plant facilities were closed, and 10 product lines were transferred to lower cost manufacturing facilities.

Wabtec today offers profitable leadership in the freight and passenger rail, transit, power generation, off-highway, and industrial fields. It continues its work with brake subsystems and related products for locomotives, freight cars, passenger transit vehicles, electronic train-control equipment, commuter and switcher locomotives, coupling, door controls, and air conditioning systems for transit vehicles. In addition, heat exchange equipment offerings remain for the rail, marine, power generation, off-highway, and industrial markets. Its traditional locomotive overhaul, fleet maintenance, supplier-managed inventory, component repair upgrades, and reconditioning remain in place.

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By Bill Senefsky
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