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Amtrak’s Spectrum Gap

In the public eye, the disaster on the rails last week in Philadelphia was not only tragic but also shocking. As a crowded Amtrak train approached a bend in the track, it was barreling along at more than 100 miles an hour — twice the mandated speed for that section. The resulting derailment killed eight people, highlighting grave deficiencies in Amtrak’s safety system.

But while Amtrak officials may have been devastated, they could not have been surprised: The accident confirmed clear vulnerabilities in the safety system, shortcomings that the rail company’s internal watchdog had been warning about for more than two years.

In a December 2012 report, Amtrak’s inspector general wrote that “formidable” and “significant challenges” were delaying deployment of a safety system known as Positive Train Control, which identifies cars that are traveling at excessive speeds and automatically slows their progress. Four years earlier, Congress had required that Amtrak and other American rail companies add the technology to their operations, but only a fraction of the rail systems were by then covered. Had the PTC technology been in place in Philadelphia, federal regulators say, the derailment might well have been prevented.

The inspector general’s 2012 report zeroed in on one missing element that was crucial to the broader deployment of the safety system: Amtrak had for years failed to acquire adequate rights to broadcast communications signals through the public airwaves. Without these so-called spectrum rights, Amtrak’s trains could not communicate with the electronic brains of the safety system, preventing its use along key stretches of track. This lack of spectrum had become the “most serious challenge” in the railroad’s efforts to deploy the safety equipment more broadly, Amtrak’s watchdog warned.

The failure to more quickly address this challenge seems like a story that the political world can oversimplify into a standard tale of cut-and-dry blame, featuring singular villains. But in this saga, many factors appear to have contributed to the disaster.

For one, there was a lack of adequate resources. Flush with profits, private freight companies had the cash to buy the spectrum they needed for their own PTC system. By contrast, Congress did not provide Amtrak with the same resources.

There was also a lack of political will. When public transportation officials begged Congress to pass a bill ordering the FCC to give the railroad unused spectrum for free rather than selling it to private telecommunications firms, lawmakers refused.

But some technology experts argue that Amtrak itself was also to blame for doggedly sticking to an outdated plan. They say that because communications technology has advanced so quickly, the railroad officials did not need to build a PTC system on exclusive spectrum — whose scarcity makes it difficult and expensive to obtain. Instead, they assert, new technologies would have allowed Amtrak to more quickly construct a system using shared spectrum, existing telecommunications infrastructure or even unlicensed frequencies that are used for things like in-home wi-fi.

“We have boatloads of fiber running alongside train tracks in the rights of way,” said Harold Feld, a senior vice president of the think tank Public Knowledge. “If I were architecting this system, I could deploy it tomorrow using unlicensed spectrum.” Amtrak’s “obsession with exclusive licensing kills,” he concluded.

How much each of these factors contributed to the catastrophe can certainly be debated. What is not debatable, however, is the existence of warning signs. The 2012 inspector general report proves they were there for all to see.

That, then, raises two pressing questions: Why were those warning signs not more urgently addressed? And will such warning signs be acted on in the future? America deserves answers.

David Sirota is a senior writer at the International Business Times and the best-selling author of the books Hostile Takeover, The Uprising, and Back to Our Future. Email him at ds@davidsirota.com, follow him on Twitter @davidsirota or visit his website at www.davidsirota.com. 

Photo: Loco Steve via Flickr

Investigators Studying Cellphone Of Engineer In Fatal Amtrak Crash

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times (TNS)

NEW YORK — Investigators trying to determine why an Amtrak train barreled into a curve at more than twice the speed limit are studying the engineer’s cellphone to see if he was distracted before the fatal crash, officials said Wednesday.

The National Transportation Safety Board said the Federal Railroad Administration had obtained the cellphone records of Brandon Bostian, who was at the train’s controls May 12 when it derailed in Philadelphia. Eight passengers on the train, Amtrak’s No. 188 out of Washington and headed for New York, were killed.

“Although the records appear to indicate that calls were made, text messages sent, and data used on the day of the accident, investigators have not yet made a determination if there was any phone activity during the time the train was being operated,” the NTSB said in its latest update on the investigation.

Robert Goggin, Bostian’s attorney, has said his client’s phone was turned off and packed in his bag, as Amtrak rules require, as the train headed north. The seven passenger cars and the locomotive sped up to 106 mph before the crash, which occurred on a curve with a 50-mph speed limit.

The NTSB said it will take time to determine if Bostian’s cellphone was indeed turned off from the time the train left Washington shortly after 7 p.m. until the moment it crashed at 9:21 p.m. Time stamps in the cellphone records must be correlated with various data sources, including the train’s so-called black box recorder, its radio communications and the locomotive’s outward facing video camera.

“Each one must be correlated to the same time zone so that a factual timeline of events can be developed that will allow investigators to understand if any phone activity has any relevance to the accident,” the NTSB said.

In addition to studying the cellphone, the NTSB said it continues to try to determine whether an object hit the train before the derailment.

A conductor on the train told investigators that she believed she had heard Bostian saying something to another train’s engineer about being hit by a projectile as he passed through Philadelphia.

A review of Bostian’s audio records from the trip, however, turned up no such conversation. Bostian did not mention anything about such a conversation when he met with investigators last Friday, officials said. The NTSB noted, however, that Bostian, who suffered head and other injuries in the crash, says he has no recollection of the incident.

The engineer of a local commuter train that had stopped after being hit by an object in the same area told investigators that he heard Bostian announce on his radio “hot track rail two,” to let him know the Amtrak train was about to pass the stopped commuter train. The commuter train’s engineer did not notice anything unusual as the Amtrak train went by, the NTSB said.
The windshield of the Amtrak locomotive appeared to have been hit by something, officials said, but the FBI studied the damage and ruled out a firearm as the cause.

Bostian, 32, has not spoken publicly. He has been an Amtrak engineer since December 2010, and had operated trains on the Washington-Boston route for about three years. According to the NTSB, he had been specifically assigned the Washington-New York City route for several weeks.

The crash halted rail service along Amtrak’s busy Northeast Corridor until last Monday morning.

Photo: (Alejandro A. Alvarez/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

Precise Data About Train’s Speed At Time Of Crash Will Come From Onboard Recorder

By Tom Avril, The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)

PHILADELPHIA — When you get right down to it, it was a question of physics.

At the site of the Amtrak derailment on Tuesday, the track had a curvature of 4 degrees. Imagine a giant circle with a diameter of nearly 2,900 feet, more than a half-mile. The track’s path would trace the outline of that circle.

The track also had a “superelevation” of 5 inches, meaning the outer rail was5 inches higher than the inner rail.

Given those parameters, a locomotive pulling seven Amtrak-size cars could safely travel up to about 55 mph, said Pennsylvania State University engineer Steve Dillen, who performed a rough calculation at The Philadelphia Inquirer’s request.

Early indications are that it was going nearly twice that fast, a National Transportation Safety Board member said Wednesday at a news conference.

Exactly how much faster will have to wait for detailed data from an onboard “event recorder,” analogous to what is known on airplanes as a black box. On trains, these devices electronically track speed, direction, distance, throttle position, and the use of brakes, among other data.

“It’ll tell them everything that train did,” said Danny Gilbert, a rail safety consultant based in Roanoke, Va.

Such recorders have been required on trains for years, but data sometimes have been lost in violent accidents. In 2005, the Federal Railroad Administration enacted rules requiring the devices to be crash-resistant.

Speed is typically measured using an axle-mounted generator that pulses with every revolution. Such generators often are mounted on more than one axle; their outputs can then be compared to correct any issues with slipping and sliding. The data is then transmitted to the event recorder.

It was not immediately known who made the box or boxes on the Amtrak train that derailed. Mayor Michael Nutter said they had been taken to an Amtrak facility in Delaware for analysis.

The section of track where the train derailed had a 50 mph speed limit.

Dillen, who coordinates the rail transportation engineering program at Penn State Altoona, said an additional 5 mph would probably be OK. Beyond that, he could not say.

Determining the exact tipping point, he said, would require a more detailed analysis involving the train’s center of gravity.

(c)2015 The Philadelphia Inquirer, Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

Multiple injuries are reported during an Amtrak crash of a northbound train in Port Richmond on Tuesday, May 12, 2015, in Philadelphia. (Tom Gralish/Philadelphia Inquirer/TNS)

America’s Infrastructure Crisis: It’s Not Sexy, But It’s Critical

In March, John Oliver addressed America’s neglect of its crumbling infrastructure — an issue that’s back in the spotlight in the aftermath of the tragic Philadelphia Amtrak crash Tuesday night.

As of Wednesday afternoon, there had been no conclusion reached on what caused the accident — though preliminary data from the NTSB has found that the train took a turn at over 100 miles per hour, more than double the maximum authorized speed at that section.

In that March feature, Oliver suggested that citizens and pols might be more inclined to give the country’s infrastructure the resources and attention it needs if only they could see the dramatic, destructive results of doing nothing.

Although played for comic effect, the grave seriousness of the segment is now abundantly clear.

Watch below: