Red Tape Slows Control System That Could Have Saved Speeding Train | KERA News

Red Tape Slows Control System That Could Have Saved Speeding Train

May 16, 2015
Originally published on May 16, 2015 6:35 pm

National Transportation Safety Board investigators say Positive Train Control — a system of satellites, communication towers and complex software that makes sure trains' safely follow their routes — would have prevented Tuesday's Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, which killed eight passengers.

Mandated by Congress after a head-on 2008 crash in Southern California killed 25, the system recognizes when signals turn red and where speed limits drop, and automatically will slow down or stop the train if the engineer misses a signal or goes over the speed limit.

The latter appears to have been a factor in the Philadelphia crash, in which the train was going over 100 mph as it went into a sharp curve with a 50 mph speed limit.

Amtrak CEO Joseph Boardman says the rail line is fully invested in meeting Congress' December 2016 deadline for the system, and even has it in place along portions of the Northeast Corridor — just not where this train crashed.

"We've spent $111 million getting ready for positive train control," he says. "We had to change a lot of things on the corridor to make it work, and we're very close to being able to cut it in."

The main holdup right now, he says, is radio interference. It's a problem that's bedeviled PTC from the start, says Karl Witbeck, an engineer who has worked on the system.

"Part of the challenge is that, in urban areas in particular, a lot of people are trying to access the spectrum," he says. "It's important to cell phone coverage, police and fire communications, stores even use it to track merchandise as it's scanned."

To use a subway-train metaphor, it's like each car is a band in the spectrum and you can put only so many people in each car before it is full. Once it is full, you can't put any more people, or communications, on that band.

And no matter how badly you need to get on that train, Witbeck says, you can't just shove your way on board.

"You can't just take away spectrum that are being used by other people that already have a license," he says.

The obvious solution is getting railroads their own piece of the spectrum, Witbeck says, and the expectation was that the Federal Communictions Commission would allocate sufficient spectrum for the nation's railroads to use. But that didn't happen, and instead the railroads had to buy it on their own.

"You have these different federal agencies basically not working together and with Congress," Witbeck says.

By coincidence, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler was on Capitol Hill just hours before the Amtrak derailment Tuesday, defending his agency's handling of Positive Train Control spectrum issues.

"For Amtrak, we've got new spectrum in the Northeast Corridor now, and we did some spectrum license transfers last week," he said.

Wheeler also says the agency has reduced lengthy delays in approving the thousands upon thousands of trackside radio antenna towers and poles that are needed for PTC.

He says the FCC is making "real, serious progress on PTC," but other officials say that, from the get-go, the FCC couldn't allocate spectrum to the railroads because Congress didn't authorize it.

Given that — and given the host of other complex, technological hurdles the industry has encountered in implementing PTC — railroad industry consultant Charlie Banks says Congress should have put more thought into whether Dec. 31 was a realistic deadline.

Amtrak says it will be done setting the system up in the Northeast Corridor by then, but very few other railroads will meet that timeline — and some say it may take at least five more years to fully implement Positive Train Control.

Karen Rouse from member station WNYC in New York contributed to this report.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. National Transportation Safety Board investigators say that Positive Train Control would've prevented Tuesday's Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia by keeping the train from going too fast. The train was going over 100-miles-per-hours, went into a sharp curve and tumbled off the tracks. PTC as it's called, Positive Train Control, costs the railroads billions of dollars, but in addition to the cost there are other barriers to implementing that complex system, as NPR's David Schaper reports, with help from WNYC's Karen Rouse.

DAVID SCHAPER, BYLINE: Positive Train Control, or PTC, uses satellite technology such as GPS, wireless radio frequencies and complex software to gather information about the route a train is traveling, so PTC will know when signals turn red and where speed limits drop. And it will automatically slow down or stop the train if the engineer misses a signal or goes over the speed limit. After a horrific crash in Southern California in 2008 in which a texting engineer missed a signal, Congress mandated PTC be implemented by all railroads by December of this year.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH BOARDMAN: We've spent $111 million getting ready for Positive Train Control.

SCHAPER: Amtrak's CEO Joseph Boardman says PTC is in place in some parts of the Northeast Corridor, just not where this train crashed.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BOARDMAN: We need some testing done on interference with the 220 megahertz radios that we're dealing with. But we will complete this by the end of the year.

SCHAPER: That part about radio interference, that's the last hurdle to overcome. The first was finding enough spectrum. To help us better understand this, WNYC reporter Karen Rouse went down into the subway with one of our radio experts, the station's director of engineering, Anton Mittag.

KAREN ROUSE, BYLINE: So we're seeing this train pull up right now and people are about to board. How is this like spectrum?

ANTON MITTAG: It's like spectrum as each car is a band in the spectrum and the whole train is the spectrum itself. And you can put only so many people in each car and then it's full, you can't put any more.

ROUSE: So David, part of the problem is that in urban areas in particular, a lot of people are trying to access the spectrum. It's important to cell phone coverage, to police and fire communications. Stores even use it to track merchandise as it's scanned. Carl Whitbeck, an engineer with Stantec, has expertise in Positive Train Control and he says part of the challenge for railroads is getting their own piece of the spectrum.

CARL WHITBECK: You can't just take away spectrum that is being used by other people that already have a license.

ROUSE: Whitbeck says the expectation was that the Federal Communications Commission would allocate sufficient spectrum for the nation's railroads to use. That hasn't happened. Instead the railroads had to buy it on their own, as he says the bureaucracies failed to act.

WHITBECK: You have these different federal agencies basically not really working together and with Congress.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM WHEELER: We have been opening up spectrum.

SCHAPER: By coincidence, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler was on Capitol Hill just hours before the Amtrak derailment Tuesday defending his agency's handling of Positive Train Control spectrum issues.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

WHEELER: For Amtrak, we've got new spectrum in the Northeast Corridor now. And we did some spectrum license transfers last week.

SCHAPER: Wheeler says the FCC is making real serious progress on PTC. But officials say from the get-go the FCC couldn't allocate spectrum to the railroads because Congress didn't authorize it. Wheeler also says the agency has reduced lengthy delays in approving the thousands upon thousands of trackside radio antenna towers and poles that are needed for PTC. But there are a host of other technological hurdles. So many complexities, in fact, that railroad industry consultant Charlie Banks asks this about Congress imposing that end-of-the-year deadline.

CHARLIE BANKS: How much time did they spend thinking about whether that deadline was realistic?

SCHAPER: It turns out that it's not. While Amtrak says it will meet the December 31 deadline in the Northeast Corridor, very few other railroads will. Some say it may take at least five more years to fully implement Positive Train Control on the nation's rails. David Schaper, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.