Amtrak seeks fast US nod for automated train braking system that could have prevented crash

Emergency workers looking through the remains of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 
Emergency workers looking through the remains of a derailed Amtrak train in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. -- PHOTO: REUTERS 

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Amtrak is seeking expedited approval to equip the Philadelphia site of last week's high-speed derailment with an automated braking system that could have prevented the fatal mishap, according to a federal regulatory document reviewed by Reuters.

The passenger rail operator told the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) last Thursday that it would ask for special temporary authority to use a radio frequency needed to operate a speed-control system known as positive train control, or PTC, in "the accident area", an FCC document shows.

Amtrak said previous efforts to obtain the radio bandwidth had been thwarted. In a blog posted over the weekend, the rail operator said litigation and regulatory proceedings "obstructed" its attempts to purchase frequencies on the open market between 2010 and 2014.

The FCC declined to comment, but FCC staff said in the document that they would act expeditiously on any Amtrak request. In the past, special temporary authority has been granted within days of an FCC review in cases without major issues, officials said.

The document, requested by Congress in the aftermath of the May 12 train wreck that killed eight passengers and injured more than 200 others, was received by lawmakers last Thursday.

Mr Robert Sumwalt, a member of the National Transportation Safety Board, said that PTC could have prevented the accident. The derailment occurred as the train headed north from Washington to New York and entered a sharp curve at more than twice the 80 kmh speed limit.

PTC is a state-of-the-art rail control system capable of slowing and even stopping trains to prevent accidents. Congress has required the US rail industry to adopt PTC by the end of 2015. Amtrak insists that it will meet the deadline.

Although Amtrak notified the FCC of its plans to seek special authority two days after the accident, an Amtrak spokeswoman said the decision was not a direct result of the derailment. Amtrak has been discussing the topic with the FCC since it won approval for its purchase of PTC wireless spectrum for the New York-to-Washington line in March, the spokeswoman said.

Amtrak officials are expected to hold a briefing on Tuesday to discuss PTC plans.

If the request is granted, Obama administration officials said Amtrak could operate at the 220MHz radio frequency for up to 180 days at the accident site and the authorization could be renewed at the end of the period.

But before deploying the system near the accident site, officials said Amtrak must complete an engineering study to determine whether the chosen frequency would interfere with the ability of nearby residents to receive broadcasts from two Philadelphia television stations.

The FCC document said Amtrak intended to complete and file the study within the next few days, setting up an FCC review as early as next week.

The Federal Railroad Administration on Saturday ordered Amtrak to install an older speed-control system called automatic train control on all north-bound trains along the area where the crash occurred, as a prerequisite for resuming normal service on Monday.

The House transportation committee is expected to hold a hearing on the deadly mishap but no date has been set.

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