Amtrak derailment triggers bickering over positive train technology

Positive train control (PTC) technology has been the focus of attention--and finger pointing--ever since the May 12 Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight passengers.

PTC uses a system of signals, computers and GPS to prevent trains from going too fast and colliding with other trains in the event an engineer is incapacitated or makes a mistake. Soon after the accident, reports surfaced that had PTC been installed where the accident occurred, it likely would have prevented it.

PTC systems are intended to reduce the risk of rail accidents caused by human error, such as derailments caused by excessive speed. If an engineer does not reduce speeds to a safe level, the PTC system is designed to slow it down automatically to a safe level.

The New York Times notes that the National Transportation Safety Board has been calling for positive train control for decades, after its investigation into a 1969 collision of two Penn Central commuter trains in Darien, Conn., that killed four people and injured 43.

But miles of track on Southern California's commuter lines still remain without the technology years after a crash in 2008 killed 25 people there, prompting lawmakers to set a December 2015 deadline for installing the technology. With most railroads expected to miss the congressional deadline, lawmakers in Washington are now fighting over how long to extend the deadline.

Source: YouTube/Association of American Railroads

According to the Association of American Railroads, for freight rail operators alone, PTC will require new technology covering more than 60,000 miles of track and the installation of at least 30,000 antennas. For PTC to work effectively, it must be interoperable across railroad systems. 

Amtrak has installed PTC in some areas, but it blamed a lack of spectrum for some of the delays in getting it installed where the May 12 accident occurred.

David Hughes, a former CEO of Amtrak, argues that the operator wasn't dragging its feet on deploying PTC--in fact, it was "moving as fast as it could," he said in an email to The Verge.

Both Amtrak and the freight railroads have been going full speed in implementing PTC, but there are some formidable challenges, and extensive testing was necessary, according to Hughes. Beyond that, "the system required radio spectrum that wasn't available. So the railroads had to go out and buy up in bits and pieces the radio spectrum to implement PTC. Moreover, even with spectrum, sites for new radio towers were required which had long permitting process. Every tower had to be approved by the local Indian tribe to ensure it wasn't near some sacred site. Permitting was a real mess," he told The Verge.

"As for Amtrak, the equipment for PTC was already installed in the track at the time of the accident. It had not been made operational because Amtrak had only recently received FCC approval for their use of the spectrum they purchased," he said. "So, the timing was really unfortunate, but Amtrak was moving as fast as it could to implement PTC on that curve."

In a blog post last week, Roger C. Sherman, chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau at the FCC, said the railroads are seeking commercial spectrum to deploy PTC, which by law must be acquired at auction or from third parties. Since Congress passed the law in 2008 requiring PTC, "the FCC has been working closely with railroads and Amtrak to identify available spectrum on the secondary market and to approve transactions quickly."

"We continue to be actively involved in helping freight and commuter trains such as Amtrak acquire spectrum," he said. In fact, the FCC had approved Amtrak's application for spectrum for the Washington, D.C., to New York corridor after an expedited review and just two days after Amtrak submitted a final amendment to the agency in March 2015.

For more:
- see this New York Times story (sub. req.)
- see this Verge article
- see this NPR story

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