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Inside look at New York Air Brake

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CNY/NNY/S. Tier: Inside look at New York Air Brake
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New York Air Brake in Watertown is a company that you've probably heard a lot about over the past year. Sometimes good news, sometimes not so good. It's something the company wants to be more open about and as part of that effort to be more involved, officials gave our Brian Dwyer a rare inside look at its past, present and future.

WATERTOWN, N.Y. -- "Typically, people have the experience that they get caught at a crossing. As you watch the train go by next time, look underneath and you'll see a series of rigging and usually a big block of aluminum. That's the brake valve, the control valve, that's our bread and butter product," New York Air Brake President Michael Hawthorne said.

"An air brake is basically a tool that they use to stop the train. It's a device that gets a signal from an engineer telling it what to do," NYAB Director of Engineering Electronics and Software Rich Matusiak said. "Do we want to apply some brakes or do we want to release some brakes?"

It all started in 1865. A man named Frederick Eames, with a new idea to use vacuum to trigger brake pads, opened a plant in Watertown.

"Watertown back in the late 1800s, early 1900s, was an ideal place to be because of the water. The Black River was a great source of power, an energy," Matusiak said.

Eames was considered brilliant, having ideas that just didn't previously exist. He was also thought of as shady and had his share of enemies.

"As word goes, there was a dispute," Hawthorne said. "The dispute wasn't settled through legal matters. Someone took exception to a deal or statement. He was shot dead in his office down on Beebee Island."

Shortly after, a company called New York Air Brake bought the property and focused on train brakes, with 4,000 employees working to come up with and build the best. But when World War II hit, operations were suspended.

"During the war efforts, shells, artillery shells were made. Artillery was made. Sherman tanks were made," Matusiak said.

From there, it was back to business. The new, the transition from mechanical solutions to electronics and software.

"We have produced some amazingly complex mechanical devices to allow the train lengths to have grown, which is a big productivity gain for the railroads," Hawthorne said.

In the 1990s, a global company called Knorr-Bremse bought the company from General Signal.

"During the period Knorr has owned the business, they've moved from just freight products and they started to build on locomotive products, which has been a very successful outlet of business," Hawthorne said.

New ideas, new technology, all helping to brake trains that are now 18,000 tons and two miles long.

"We get raw material in either a casting or a solid block of metal. We turn that into, through machining and drilling holes, sanding off different pieces of metal, just pure machining, we turn that into something that's useful for our product, whether it's a volume or whether it's a valve," Matusiak said.

And once it's done, it's tested, over and over and over. They're typically tested for three months.

"The kind of testing and the level of engineering required to really hang a tag that says safe is what you see in our labs. Testing for thermal. Testing for vibration. Testing for performance," Hawthorne said. "The concepts that come forward. The ideas on how we can improve the operation of our customers, safe train movements, or the safety of the application of our technologies takes a lot of different shapes. Everything from, literally, napkin sketches, all the way to a prototype and into production. It's a fantastic experience."

But is Watertown a viable part of the Air Brake's future? The company says that depends on a lot of things, including help from local and state governments.

And what about its responsibility when it comes to the major pollution problem from the General Signal days? We will take a look at Air Brake's future Tuesday afternoon.

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