Radio frequency fight delayed Amtrak safety system

May 20, 2015 10:26 pm

Rail officials say, if not for budgetary shortfalls, technical hurdles, and bureaucratic rules, the Amtrak train crash in Philadelpia last week could have been avoided. Radio spectrum is something of a scarce commodity in the Northeasten Corridor, and all sorts of commercial interests have been fighting over the frequencies the railroad needs since 2008 when Congress ordered the positive train control (PTC) systems, which can detect an out-of-control, speeding train and automatically slow it down using radio waves. The New York Times reported that "officials say [a working PTC system] could have prevented the wreck." Amtrack, according to their website, was using the 900MHz frequency for train control, but found during installation of PTC in Michigan that 220MHz transmitted information more quickly, offered better coverage, and more room for growth. "Between 2010 and 2014, litigation and regulatory proceedings obstructed Amtrak’s attempts to purchase bandwidth on the open market," their website claims, saying they tried and failed to get access to the FCC’s inventory of unused spectrum. The New York Times story blames Congress saying, "lawmakers failed to provide the railroads access to the wireless frequencies required to make the system work, Amtrak was forced to negotiate for airwaves owned by private companies that are often used in mobile broadband." The FCC approved Amtrak’s application for the purchase of wireless spectrum from Skybridge Spectrum Foundation on March 5 this year, and Amtrak took title in April, 2015, just before the accident. "Provided the FCC’s requirements are met, we intend to complete the system on the NEC by the end of 2015 and meet the federally mandated requirement," Amtrak's website says. If the system had been operational earlier, “there wouldn’t have been this accident,” said Representative Robert A. Brady, Democrat of Pennsylvania in The New York Times.
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