The bigger picture (with related video)
What is in this article?
Timing is everything
In the rail industry, the most significant communications initiative today revolves around the deployment of positive train control (PTC) systems, which are designed to monitor the location of trains and ensure that they are traveling on railways that are safe. In October 2008 — just one month after a Metrolink passenger train and a Union Pacific train collided in Chatsworth, Calif., resulting in 25 fatalities — Congress enacted a law mandating that certain freight and passenger rail systems implement PTC systems by Dec. 31, 2015.
To meet this requirement, affected rail operators are trying to secure spectrum in and around the 220 MHz band, which will be used to operate the Interoperable Electronic Train Management System (IETMS), a low-bandwidth, high-reliability technology manufactured by Mediacom Communications, according to Karl Witbeck, vice chairman of the Joint Council on Transit Wireless Communications.
"The general view right now is that [PTC] requires a separate, dedicated mobile-data system, which is the direction that the industry is going now," he said, expressing doubt as to whether the PTC buildout plans could be leveraged to aid the deployment of the 700 MHz public-safety network.
Estimates are that the affected rail operators will spend about $10 billion — $3 billion more than Congress allocated for the public-safety broadband network deployment — to meet the PTC mandate, but some are finding it challenging to get access to the needed spectrum and funding. With this in mind, bills have been introduced in Congress that would delay the PTC mandate until 2018 or 2020, Witbeck said.
If one of those bills becomes law — a long shot in the current partisan environment, according to Beltway sources — Witbeck said the PTC dialog in the rail industry could shift. A rail-specific LTE solution is being developed, and a delayed PTC timeline likely would line up better with the deployment of the public-safety broadband network.
"What would be interesting is if Congress tells the FRA [Federal Railroad Administration], 'Let's kick [PTC] out to 2020 or that sort of thing,'" Witbeck said. "Then, I think LTE becomes more of an interesting discussion, because then it might be possible — given the extended timeframe — to put together some sort of a system.
"That could open up a lot of interesting discussions that haven't taken place yet for PTC. There have been preliminary discussions on general business operations and mobile-data applications for transit, but not for PTC that I'm aware of."