Train Control Tech Issue Raised in Derailment Coverage

Cable news coverage of the deadly derailment of a New York-bound Amtrak train outside Philadelphia Tuesday night (May 12) raised the issue of positive train control (PTC), a safety technology the Federal Communications Commission has been dealing with in terms of freeing up spectrum and placing antennas, as CNN's reports repeatedly delved into it.

Analyst and former DOT director general Mary Schiavo, for example, talked about the technology's potential to prevent some kinds of accidents, including those involving trains on the same track or too little spacing between trains. The Association of American Railroads also has said PTC could potentially prevent derailments caused by excessive speed.

The cause of Tuesday's deadly derailment was not known at press time. Six passengers have been confirmed dead and 65 were taken to area hospitals, according to The New York Times.

The accident occurred only hours after FCC chairman Tom Wheeler had talked about the status of the FCC's efforts to advance PTC technology. Wheeler had been asked by Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) to comment on the status of PTC and the FCC's progress toward expediting that public safety goal.

(Coincidentally, CNN reported, Coons's homestate colleague Senator Tom Carper of Delaware had been on the train, which originated in Washington, but had dismbarked,  in Delaware; the derailment occurred just north of Philadelphia.)

Wheeler told Coons the positive train control issue has two parts: spectrum and tthe placement of antennas. He said the FCC had recently eased power restrictions for commuter lines to reduce the number of poles required, and opened up and transferred spectrum, including spectrum to Amtrak in the Northeast corridor.

Wheeler also said that since he had become chairman, the FCC had instituted new procedures such that the agency was able to process more applications for placement of the poles that hold the antennas than the railroads were currently submitting. He said the FCC could now handle 2,800 requests a week, which he said the railroads could not keep pace with.

"I think we are making some real serious progress on PTC," he told Coons.

Back in February, in response to a letter from Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) about the status of PTC deployment, Wheeler said: "PTC has the potential to save lives, prevent injuries, and avoid extensive property damage. Expediting PTC deployment remains one of the Commission's highest priorities, and we continue to devote substantial resources toward this goal."

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.