FCC: Railroads Mostly Have Needed PTC Spectrum

An FCC official said Wednesday (June 10) that the commission believed the railroads either had or were close to getting the spectrum they need to implement positive train control technologies, but that interference, train-to-train and train-to-TV station, continued to be a potential problem.

DJ Stadtler, executive VP and COO of Amtrak, testified at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing on rail safety 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." 

Charles Mathias, associate bureau chief of the FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said that "even in the Northeast Corridor, we think that they do have the spectrum, or are certainly close to getting it."

He said the FCC has been in talks with Amtrak officials over the past two weeks and was committed to finding them additional spectrum if it was needed.

He pointed out that the 2008 legislation prompting PTC did not designate spectrum for it or direct the FCC to allocate it, so the FCC encouraged railroads to look to secondary markets, including for the Northeast Corridor, though he conceded that since no money was allocated for Congress for those purchases, that it is "challenging."

Mathias said that interference was an issue, including train-to-train and train-to-TV station. He said that Amtrak and freight railroads had assured the FCC they would design their systems not to interfere with each other, but was told May 29 that using the same spectrum block in a stretch from Boston to New Haven would result in "harmful interference."

Mathias said the FCC was working on possible solutions, and Stadtler said Amtrak was working with the FCC and mitigating interference where it was identified.

The hearing was prompted by the deadly train derailment in Philadelphia on a stretch of Amtrak line without positive train control, which is supposed to be in place nationwide by the end of the year.

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.

Mathias also pointed out that the FCC has fast-tracked tower citing (over 30,00 poles are needed) for PTC from several months or more to, in some cases, 30 days.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) asked whether the FCC could do something to make it easier to check telecom call records, pointing to the four weeks it took to determine whether the engineer in the derailment had been on his phone. Mathias said he did not know but would check.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.