CRC Calls for PTC Spectrum Protection

Written by William C. Vantuono, Editor-in-Chief
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The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act (RSIA) required railroads that operate or host passenger trains (commuter/regional and intercity) to install Positive Train Control (PTC). The Commuter Rail Coalition (CRC) points out that, despite PTC requiring radio frequency spectrum for communication, “when commuter railroads needed to acquire spectrum, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) rebuffed requests to recognize the public safety mandate that required it, and told railroads to buy spectrum on the open market.”

Commuter railroad efforts to acquire RF spectrum “resulted in inflated prices, misleading ownership lineage and lawsuits, crowded operating markets, and further stretched the resources of publicly funded commuter railroads,” CRC notes. “In August 2013, nearly five years after the mandate, and 16 months before the RSIA’s [initial] implementation deadline of Dec. 31, 2015 (now extended to year-end 2020), the Government Accountability Office reported that commuter railroads were still facing problems ‘obtaining radio frequency spectrum, which is essential to PTC communications.’

“Together with too little federal funding to implement the mandate (at a cost of more than $4 billion [to commuter railroads], doubling original estimates) and a severely limited pool of suppliers and qualified system integrators, the barriers to spectrum acquisition contributed significantly to PTC implementation delays for commuter railroads. In short, the FCC’s decision impeded commuter railroads’ ability to deliver on the 2008 federal safety mandate.

“Remarkedly, the FCC continues in this vein. The FCC has suggested opening the 5.9 GHz band for non-transportation technology use, an action that drew the attention of all 50 states’ top transportation officials because it will jeopardize the integrity of the communications technology that will connect autonomous vehicles. In their Aug. 20 letter to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, the states called for reserving the 5.9 GHz wireless spectrum for transportation-only usage.”

“Connected vehicles—on roads and on rails—can only operate safely if their communication channels are clear,” said CRC Chairman and Metra CEO and Executive Director Jim Derwinski. That is why the Commuter Rail Coalition supports the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) call to preserve dedicated spectrum for the safety of the emerging autonomous and connected vehicle market.”

Commuter railroads, all of which are publicly funded, “have long done more with less, which includes introducing safety protocols and systems beyond federal mandates, making rail the safest form of public transportation,” CRC noted. “Conversely, traveling in vehicles on U.S. roadways already carries a significantly higher risk, with lifetime odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash at 1 in 103 (0.97%)*, according to the National Safety Council. The FCC’s refusal to protect a communications spectrum that would facilitate the future of autonomous vehicles directly puts public safety at risk. The FCC must protect and preserve this spectrum band solely for transportation.”

*The odds of dying in a passenger train crash are 1 in 431,800 (0.00023%).

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