When a train carrying crude oil derailed in Vandergrift last month, it once again raised concerns about how safe the country's rail system is. No one was injured in the accident, which is still under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board, but it was one of two derailments in Pennsylvania in the span of a month.
And it prompted the Association of American Railroads to introduce a slate of new, voluntary safety practices for moving crude oil by rail, including increased track inspections, lower speeds through urban areas and updates to braking systems.
The association argued that the industry has a historic focus on safety.
"Railroads have a long history of developing self-imposed safety measures," said Holly Arthur, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based industry trade group. "Since it's privately owned, it's an industry that has always had a sense that the responsibility for safety is something that rests with the railroads themselves."
Wilmerding-based Wabtec's future depends on that -- as has its past.
Wabtec's roots in the rail industry date to Westinghouse Air Brake Co. in 1869 and founder George Westinghouse's own experience in a train collision in upstate New York.
According to the book "Wilmerding and the Westinghouse Air Brake Company," part of the "Images of America" history series, the idea of a compressed-air-powered braking system occurred to Mr. Westinghouse when a brakeman in that incident told him, "You can't stop a train in a moment."
The first test of Westinghouse's air brake system, according to the book, successfully prevented a train from hitting a horse-and-buggy that had wandered onto the tracks.
Over the decades, the company has established itself as a center for safety innovations, with its technology leading the way in many of the rail industry's improvements and changes.
"Every business has a theme, a central idea," said Wabtec CEO Albert Neupaver. "The reason Wabtec exists is to make a positive impact on rail safety."
The boom in transporting oil
The most recent rail accidents have involved trains carrying crude oil, including a train that derailed and exploded in Quebec in July, killing 47 people and spilling 1.5 million gallons of crude.
On Feb. 13, a 120-car Norfolk Southern train bound for New Jersey derailed in Vandergrift, striking a building and spilling 4,000 gallons of crude oil. That marked the second incident just in Pennsylvania in a month. On Jan. 20, a train carrying crude oil derailed in Philadelphia.
Transport of crude oil via rail is not a new practice, Ms. Arthur noted. "Remember that railroads have moved oil since they first began -- [John] Rockefeller developed his own pipeline because he didn't want to pay [William] Vanderbilt to move it by railroad."
But the volume of oil being moved by rail has increased, as North American production has increased.
The Energy Information Administration estimates U.S. crude oil production will reach 8.5 million barrels per day in 2014, compared with about 7.5 million barrels in 2013 and about 5 million barrels per day in 2008, the lowest point in the past two decades.
According to the Association of American Railroads statistics, railroads shipped 400,000 carloads of crude oil in 2013, or about 11.5 billion gallons, compared to about 9,500 carloads in 2008.
The increased volume of oil being moved by rail has driven the industry to keep updating safety measures, Ms. Arthur said. "It always gets more publicity when the industry makes changes after an accident happens, but the industry is always addressing safety issues and taking preventive measures because it's the right thing to do."
Railroads don't own the rail cars, Ms. Arthur added, so the industry looks to the government to regulate standards for shippers. She said after the Quebec accident, the rail industry imposed new speed limits for trains.
Ms. Arthur said in addition to technology improvements, other keys to rail safety are infrastructure improvement and working with communities to address preparedness in the event of future accidents.
"We've spent a lot of time and energy on prevention," she said. "Safety in this industry has been a cumulative learning process, with us constantly looking for new ways to do things and ways to improve."
Innovation in safety
As a freight train passed behind him on tracks behind Wabtec's offices on a recent morning, Mr. Neupaver said one of the challenges of trying to advance technology in the venerable rail industry can be an attitude of risk aversion, with safety concerns driving almost all decision-making.
"We try to continue to develop technology, but it may take time for that technology to be fully adapted," he said. "We make continued investment without the commercialization you'd have with a more normal product. It requires tremendous industry knowledge and capability."
One of the largest segments of Wabtec's business is so-called "positive train control," a safety backup system that can automatically stop a train by using global positioning systems if it is not operating as planned. Under the Rail Safety Improvement Act, positive train control implementation will be required across much of the U.S. rail system by 2015.
The impetus for the technology came from a fatal crash near Los Angeles in 2008. Twenty-five people were killed when a Metrolink passenger train, whose engineer was later found to be sending text messages at the time, collided with a Union Pacific freight train. The National Transportation Safety Board said at the time that positive train control could have prevented the Metrolink crash.
In 2012 alone, Wabtec recorded $215 million in revenue for positive train control implementation contracts, according to its annual report.
In addition to the positive train control system, Wabtec makes switching systems, door control and even air-conditioning systems.
And, of course, the company makes numerous parts used in braking systems for locomotive, freight and passenger cars, all largely based, on George Westinghouse's original air brake concept.
Mr. Neupaver declined to discuss specific incidents, but he said the industry studies them all to try to make improvements.
"This is an industry that always strives toward safety," he said. "Whenever there's an accident, we as an industry will analyze it, what can we do, what lessons can we learn.
"We want to learn what technology is not being applied that could be applied in the future."
Kim Lyons: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1241. Twitter: @SocialKimly