FCC pledges to work with Amtrak to resolve spectrum issues related to positive train technology

Just as investigators determined that the engineer driving an Amtrak train was not using his cell phone when the train derailed in Philadelphia last month, an FCC official said the agency believed the railroads either had or were close to getting the spectrum they need to deploy positive train control (PTC) technologies.

Charles Mathias, associate bureau chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, testified during a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on rail safety Wednesday that "even in the Northeast Corridor, we think that they do have the spectrum, or are certainly close to getting it.," according to Broadcasting & Cable.

Since 2008, the FCC has been working closely with the railroads to identify spectrum on the secondary market, including Amtrak's acquisition of spectrum in the Northeast corridor, according to Mathias. Railroad officials have said access to spectrum had been one of the factors delaying implementation of PTC.

According to Mathias, spectrum acquisition in the Northeast corridor is more complicated than in the rest of the country because Amtrak and the freight railroads are deploying two different PTC systems that were not engineered to be compatible. The systems can operate without difficulty when geographically separate from each other, but when operating in close proximity on the same spectrum, as in the Northeast corridor, "the systems can encounter significant challenges," according to his testimony. 

Unlike in a market such as Chicago, where the railroads will share the same block of spectrum and use a single PTC system, in the Northeast 4 corridor each PTC system requires spectrum far enough from the other's to avoid the interference that could affect proper operations.

Amtrak and the freight railroads assured the FCC that they would design their respective systems to operate with respect to each other on a non‐interference basis, Mathias said. However, on May 29, Amtrak and the freight railroads advised FCC staff in a joint meeting that using their separate PTC radio systems on the Boston-to-New Haven portion of the Northeast corridor in the same spectrum block would result in harmful interference. That could degrade or disable communications on both systems, causing either or both to function improperly or stop functioning altogether. 

Mathias told senators the FCC stands ready to work with Amtrak, the commuter rails and freight railroads to facilitate resolution of the technical and spectrum issues related to the decision to deploy separate PTC systems in the same frequency band in the Northeast corridor.

The FCC's spectrum policies came into question after railroad officials complained they were not getting spectrum allocated fast enough to deploy the PTC technology that could have saved lives, including in the derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people.

DJ Stadtler, executive VP and COO of Amtrak, testified at the hearing that access to spectrum had been one of the factors delaying implementation. "Amtrak attempted to purchase the necessary bandwidth on the open market, but the acquisition proved to be a challenging and time-consuming process, and our several requests to the FCC for a bandwidth allocation out of its inventory were not accepted," he said.

Stadtler said that by the December, PTC would be in place all along the Northeast corridor with the exception of a 56-mile stretch in New York and Connecticut and a small gap in Queens, N.Y., Broadcasting & Cable reports.

Coincidentally, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was on Capitol Hill just hours before the Amtrak derailment defending the agency's handling of positive train control spectrum issues, NPR reported. He said the FCC reduced lengthy delays in approving thousands of trackside radio antenna towers and poles needed for PTC.

For more:
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this Albany Times Union article
- see this FCC hearing testimony

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