Spectrum Gap Slows Railroads Racing to Meet Positive Train Control Deadline

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By Stephanie Beasley

Sept. 18 — Railroads are stumbling over gaps in access to wireless radio spectrum needed to meet a Dec. 31 deadline to implement an automated safety system known as positive train control (PTC). Though Congress may extend the deadline, one commuter rail industry group warned that commuter rails, in particular, need Congress to set aside spectrum for them to succeed.

Congress issued a mandate in 2008 compelling railroads to install positive train control technology by 2016 that would prevent collisions with other trains and derailments caused by excessive speed. However, lawmakers did not designate any spectrum band for the wireless communications that would connect trains and rail infrastructure as part of the PTC implementation.

House and Senate leaders have said they are working to pass a PTC extension before the end of this year but have not indicated whether they would try to provide the rail industry with more spectrum. And spectrum access is only one of the setbacks and delays that have plagued PTC implementation.

The challenges also include a limited number of manufacturers that can produce components needed to install the new safety equipment, access to radio spectrum and Federal Communications Commission permits for communications infrastructure, according to a Government Accountability Office report released Sept. 16.

The majority of freight and commuter railroads will not meet the PTC deadline. The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) estimated in August that just 39 percent of freight railroads and 29 percent of commuter railroads will have installed PTC equipment on time.

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Seven-Year Struggle To Put PTC Into Place

It is no secret that railroads are struggling to meet the PTC deadline. In a 2012 report, the GAO noted that many companies had yet to develop the software needed to test PTC equipment and that passenger railroads funded by local and state governments lacked adequate funding to implement the safety systems. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) also has been urging Congress for several years to extend the deadline.

Lawmakers have heightened their scrutiny of the issue in the aftermath of a high-profile May 12 Amtrak train derailment in Philadelphia that killed eight people, with some calling for strict FRA enforcement of the positive train control deadline. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) has been one of the most vocal proponents of the FRA imposing “stiff penalties” on rail service providers that miss the deadline, if they have not received an extension.

Blumenthal is a co-sponsor of legislation (S. 1006) that would limit railroads to one-year extensions for PTC implementation, which would be granted on a case-by-case basis and only until 2018. However, a passenger rail bill included in a Senate-passed six-year surface transportation reauthorization bill (H.R.22) would extend the PTC deadline for all railroads until Dec. 31, 2018.

In addition to providing a PTC extension through 2018, the six-year Senate highway bill would require the Transportation Department and the FCC to jointly assess rail spectrum needs related to PTC implementation and submit a report to Congress within 120 days of the bill's enactment.

House Transportation and Infrastructure Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.) said he is working with his Senate counterparts to craft a similar provision that could ride on a multiyear highway bill.

Shuster already has signaled that a busy agenda and relatively few legislative days in the fall could push the House to pass another highway patch before current highway and transit spending authority expires on Oct. 29. If the Senate goes along with the plan and clears a short-term highway and transit bill without the PTC extension, that could mean an uncertain future for rail service carriers. Some, such as Union Pacific Corp. and BNSF Railway Co., have warned lawmakers that, rather than operating without PTC, they will shut down their railway networks if Congress does not extend the deadline. 

PTC Extension Is Top Priority

A Republican aide for the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee said passing a deadline extension would be a top priority for Congress this fall, especially because railroads will need to finalize PTC plans well ahead of the December deadline.

“The PTC deadline in some ways is going to be even before Dec. 31, 2015, in terms of effects on shippers,” the aide told Bloomberg BNA. “A lot of the planning that they're going to have to do in terms of working through contracts to carry cargo, getting certain cars off their lines and back to the car owners prior to the deadline, and actually knowing what's going to happen—that's going to happen in the coming months, especially in late November and early December.”

The aide said there will be disruptions to rail service if the PTC issue has not been resolved by then, an opinion echoed by rail companies.

BNSF Railway Co. sent a letter to the Senate transportation panel Sept. 9 saying that it has installed PTC on about half of its system but continues to experience technical difficulties with the software. The company said it expects it will still need to install and test PTC equipment on portions of its network after the Dec. 31 deadline.

CSX Corp. also sent a letter to the Senate transportation committee Sept. 9 warning that, if the deadline is not extended, rail companies would have to re-route trains from some major corridors to those lines that have PTC installed, which could cause congestion.

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Spectrum Access Will Remain a Major Hurdle

Both BNSF and CSX cited the Federal Communications Commission's slow responses to companies seeking to build wireless radio spectrum towers needed for wireless rail infrastructure communication as contributing to delays in implementing PTC. The FCC oversees the allocation of spectrum to rail companies.

Despite some difficulties, an AAR spokesman said the freight rail industry began addressing spectrum access early in its development of PTC by pooling existing spectrum licenses and acquiring new licenses to accommodate the train safety systems. Commuter rails, on the other hand, have been slower to secure spectrum. One industry group said it believes the FCC has not done enough to help service providers secure the wireless spectrum needed to receive the safety signals and data critical to making PTC systems fully operational.

Brian Tynan, director of government affairs at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), said federal regulators have known for years that commuter rails were struggling to gain access to the spectrum they need to operate PTC. Much of the spectrum along railroads has already been claimed, and in some cases there are multiple owners for different portions of track along the same route, he said. The FCC has agreed to help rail service providers acquire the spectrum on the secondary market, but Tynan said that many times spectrum is only available for lease, not for sale.

“Short-term leases for a long-term safety requirement, that's not a solution,” Tynan told Bloomberg BNA.

Charles Mathias, associate chief of the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said during a June 10 Senate transportation panel hearing that purchasing spectrum along Amtrak's congested Northeast Corridor is especially difficult, as is making sure that freight and Amtrak PTC systems do not interfere with each other. Mathias further noted that Congress could have alleviated some of the challenges railroads are facing by designating spectrum for PTC use.

Calls For FCC to Reallocate Spectrum

Tynan says requiring a DOT-FCC rail spectrum report is not enough. Congress should direct the FCC to dedicate spectrum for the deployment of life-saving positive train control technology, he said. Tynan noted that it would be similar to what the FCC did for the auto industry more than a decade ago when it allocated a 5.9 GHz band for vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology such as vehicle sensors that could warn drivers of impending collisions.

“Congress and the FCC could choose to reallocate spectrum and then provide the owners of the spectrum with an equivalent replacement value somewhere else,” he said.

Barry Einsig, Cisco Inc. global transportation executive, said that passenger rail companies are not accustomed to paying for spectrum or having to compete in the secondary market. The demand for spectrum has changed radically in the last decade, he said.

Cisco has been working with rail industry groups, such as the Association of American Railroads, to test licensed spectrum.

Einsig said that the needs of railroads working to implement “safety-critical” PTC should be given priority when it comes to spectrum allocation.

“If they're building a system that is safety-critical or even, in the case of some, business-critical for individual consumers, they need to have some level of certainty or determinism to ensure that they will have the necessary spectrum,” he told Bloomberg BNA.

Einsig said spectrum access will likely become a bigger issue as the transportation industry works to implement more wireless safety features. Stakeholders will need “every piece of spectrum that we can get our hands on to create a complete ecosystem,” he said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephanie Beasley in Washington at sbeasley@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

The Norfolk Southern Corp. video on positive train control, is online at http://wn.com/positive_train_control.

The text of the BNSF Railway letter is at http://src.bna.com/hO.

The text of the CSX letter is online at http://src.bna.com/hP.