The FCC plays an important, if little known, role in railroad safety.

In the aftermath of this week’s tragic Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia, the issue of Positive Train Control (PTC) – previously a subject familiar only to relatively few – has burst into the public consciousness. PTC is a technology that likely would have prevented the accident had PTC been functioning in the Philly portion of the Amtrak line. While we here at Fletcher Heald & Hildreth are not railroad lawyers, we do know a lot about PTC, because PTC requires spectrum to function, and the FCC – an arena with which we are very familiar – is the go-to agency when it comes to spectrum. We have been working for a number of years with one of our rail carrier clients to obtain spectrum for implementation of PTC.

PTC systems are designed to monitor train activity, prevent train collisions and worker injuries, and enhance public safety. PTC is a spectrum-based technology: radio devices located onboard a train transmit and receive data to and from radio devices installed along the track and at network operations centers. The components of the system onboard each train automatically monitor the train’s speed and location with respect to the area in which the train is authorized to travel. Through this complex flow of real-time information, PTC systems can manage track congestion and improve safety by imposing limits (e.g., speed, location) on trains while they are in motion. PTC is also designed to provide a wide range of additional safety-related functions: for example, it can continuously monitor and report train diagnostics, issue alarms (about, for example, broken rails and incorrect switch alignments), and monitor radio transmissions from “wayside” systems.

Public safety is, of course, a primary concern for any operator of a train system, and robust, reliable, advanced telecommunications capability is a critical tool for insuring safe operations. Congress recognized this back in 2008, when it enacted the Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) mandating the implementation of PTC on major freight and passenger railroads by December 31, 2015. In so doing, however, Congress stopped short of insuring that all the necessary resources would be available to railroads: while the RSIA mandated the implementation of PTC, it didn’t set aside the spectrum necessary to get the job done. Rather than require the FCC to specifically allocate spectrum to support PTC, Congress left that decision up to the Commission, which has chosen not to make such an allocation. As a result, railroads have been left to identify and obtain both the necessary spectrum – usually from non-railroad entities that had previously licensed it for other uses – and the necessary authorizations from the FCC.

It has been a long and frustrating process for many carriers … but it can be done.

We here at FHH were greatly saddened at the injuries and loss of life that resulted from this week’s Amtrak accident. That tragic incident underscores the urgent need to complete the implementation of PTC as quickly as possible. For our part, we remain dedicated to helping our clients obtain the spectrum authorizations they need to achieve that goal. When that process is completed, it will be one of our most satisfying accomplishments.