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June 10, 2015

Amtrak to test new rail safety system in Philly and elsewhere

But FCC warns of troubles if system is implemented

Amtrak said on Wednesday that it has won government approval to test a new rail safety system between New York and Washington that federal inspectors say would have prevented the deadly May 12 derailment in Philadelphia.

But the Federal Communications Commission warned that the system, which relies on radio transmissions between trains and track sensors, could face "harmful interference" from rival freight railroad systems along another busy track between Boston and New Haven, Connecticut.

The statements were contained in separate pieces of written testimony submitted by Amtrak and the FCC to the Senate Commerce Committee ahead of a hearing on positive train control, or PTC, a new safety system that railroads are required to implement before Dec. 31.

The National Transportation Safety Board says the technology would have prevented last month's accident, which occurred when an Amtrak train derailed on a bend while traveling at more than twice the 50 mile-per-hour speed limit. Eight people died and more than 200 others were injured.

Amtrak intends to have PTC operating along sections of its busy Northeast Corridor (NEC) between Washington and Boston.

But the passenger rail operator said it could have to terminate its Southwest Chief service between Chicago and Los Angeles, and its Missouri River Runner service between St. Louis and Kansas City, because a dispute over $30 million in PTC implementation costs with freight railroads for track in the U.S. Midwest.

"Amtrak can test all of its wayside base stations from DC to New York at their full designated power to be sure they communication appropriately," D.J. Stadtler, vice president of Amtrak operations, said in written testimony.

"Once that testing demonstrates that our system setting are appropriate, we can go into full operation on all equipped trains on the NEC."

But Charles Mathias, associate chief of the FCC Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, said PTC operations in the Northeast still face challenges due to radio frequencies.

He told the panel that Amtrak and freight railroads are deploying two different PTC systems that are not compatible. On May 29, he said, the railroads told FCC staff that the use of the two PTC systems would result in "harmful interference" between Boston and New Haven.

"This could degrade or disable communications on both systems, causing either both to function improperly or stop functioning altogether," Mathias said in written testimony.