A new hurdle to Amtrak’s automated solution to prevent high-speed train derailments like the fatal accident in Philadelphia emerged at a hearing Wednesday.
The system that commands trains to slow down to avert emergencies may not work properly in some locations because it relies on airwaves that can be blocked by signals from equipment on adjacent freight railroad tracks, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Freight railroads operating from New Haven, Connecticut, to Boston plan to use the same radio frequencies as Amtrak for their separate train-safety system and that may cause interference, Charles Mathias associate chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, told Congress.
“This could degrade or disable communications on both systems, causing either or both to function improperly or stop functioning altogether,” Mathias said at a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee in Washington. “We understand the criticality of this,” and the FCC is working with railroads to resolve the issue, he said.
Amtrak, according to its five-year budget plan, has invested at least $76.9 million on the Positive Train Control program, which is supposed to be fully up and running by the end of the year on Amtrak-owned rails along its popular Northeast Corridor route that snakes up from Washington to Boston.
Installation was slowed because it took five years to purchase access to the radio frequencies it needed, DJ Stadtler, Amtrak’s vice president of operations, told the committee. He said it didn’t receive permission until May 29 to begin testing the system south of New York — where the recent derailment occurred.
While Amtrak has sorted out all those issues, it must now consider the possibility that the system won’t operate as planned once freight railroads install their train-control technologies.
Because freight railroads aren’t ready to complete their system immediately, interference issues shouldn’t prevent Amtrak’s passenger rail service from completing its version this year, Stadtler said.
Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, a South Dakota Republican, said most railroads won’t finish installing the system by Dec. 31 and Congress needs to set a “thoughtful” revised schedule.
While the train-control system has been in the works for years, it was thrust back into the spotlight last month after an Amtrak train going through Philadelphia sped toward a curve at as much as 106 miles (171 kilometers) per hour, or more than twice the limit, and derailed. Eight of the 238 passengers were killed.
Investigators are still searching for answers to why the train was traveling so far over the speed limit and why the engineer didn’t apply the emergency brakes sooner than he did.
In a report released just before Wednesday’s hearing, the National Transportation Safety Board said there was no evidence so far to show that engineer Brian Bostian was on his mobile phone or that he violated Amtrak policy prohibiting distractions from calls and texts.
He also didn’t access the train’s Wi-Fi system while operating the locomotive, the NTSB said.
“We have determined that there was no talking or texting or data use involved,” NTSB Vice Chairwoman T. Bella Dinh-Zarr told the Senate committee.
Investigators haven’t yet ruled out whether the phone may have been used in other ways, Dinh-Zarr said.
The NTSB is attempting to determine whether the device was in “airplane mode” or was switched off during the trip. They have been examining the phone’s operating system, which contains more than 400,000 files, according to the NTSB’s statement.
Bostian, who suffered a head injury, has told investigators he doesn’t recall what happened prior to the crash. Bostian gave investigators his phone’s password, which allowed them to access data on the device without having to seek a subpoena, according to the NTSB.
The investigation will continue into the crash, which Amtrak estimates cost more than $9.2 million, according to a preliminary NTSB report released June 2.
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