May 15, 2015 - 9:46 am
By Roger C. Sherman | Chief, Wireless Telecommunications Bureau

Like the rest of the nation, we are deeply saddened by this week’s fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. We send our condolences to the families of those who lost their loved ones and our gratitude to the first responders for their efforts.

As National Transportation Safety Board investigators seek answers to questions about the crash, some questions about Positive Train Control (PTC) have been raised.  I thought it would be helpful to explain what it is and give an overview of the FCC’s role in its implementation.

PTC systems are intended to reduce the risk of rail accidents caused by human error, such as derailments caused by excessive speed.   PTC technology is designed to enable real-time information sharing between trains, rail wayside devices, and control centers, which, for example, would notify a train engineer about dangerous speeds.   If an engineer does not reduce speeds to a safe level, the PTC system is designed to slow it down automatically to a safe level.

In 2008, Congress passed a law requiring Amtrak and other commuter and freight railroads to deploy interoperable PTC systems by December 31, 2015, but did not designate spectrum, a finite resource, for PTC use or make funds available for railroads to acquire access to spectrum. 

The Department of Transportation’s Federal Railroad Administration has primary authority to ensure PTC systems are activated and work properly.  As the nation’s communications agency, the FCC helps facilitate spectrum acquisition by freight and commuter trains. We also manage the mandatory historic preservation and environmental reviews of PTC system infrastructure.  

The railroads are seeking commercial spectrum to deploy PTC, which – by law – must be acquired at auction or from third parties. Since Congress passed the law in 2008 requiring PTC, the FCC has been working closely with railroads and Amtrak to identify available spectrum on the secondary market and to approve transactions quickly.

We continue to be actively involved in helping freight and commuter trains such as Amtrak acquire spectrum. In fact, the FCC approved Amtrak’s application for spectrum for the Washington D.C. to New York corridor after an expedited review and just two days after Amtrak submitted a final amendment to the agency in March 2015.

Rail safety is a top FCC priority. Be assured that the FCC will continue to work closely with the nation’s railroads to enable the rapid deployment of Positive Train Control.