Amtrak's PTC 220mHz Spectrum Strategy

Wireless Wonk

Amtrak's PTC 220mHz Spectrum Strategy

By Barlow Keener, Attorney  |  July 22, 2015

Riding Amtrak from Boston to NYC is far safer than driving on U.S. roads where, tragically, almost 33,804 people were killed in the U.S. in 2013, almost 93 unnecessary deaths per day. The Amtrak accident on May 13, 2015, while awful and tragic, resulted in just six deaths, a miniscule fraction of the 33,000 U.S. automobile deaths. Unlike the railroads, which have made substantial progress on implementing wireless safety technology called positive train control, the U.S. highway system is completely lacking in a connected road safety system. Nevertheless, the press and Congress have dissected the Amtrak accident. It is a spectrum issue that deserves a review of the facts.  

Amtrak blamed the Philadelphia accident on an “an ongoing spectrum issue,” according to a May 14 story in The New York Times. Slow PTC implementation was caused by Amtrak’s failure to obtain the needed spectrum in a timely manner. However, the spectrum issue, and the delay in implementing Amtrak’s PTC, is anything but simple. 

After a closer look, it is clear that the Amtrak “spectrum issue” boiled down to the selection of 220mHz for PTC by the designers without consideration for spectrum license acquisition problems; poor strategic choices (as called by Monday-morning quarterbacking) made by Amtrak in obtaining the spectrum starting before 2010; and Congressional failure in 2008 to foresee the spectrum licensing issue and to allocate the spectrum by legislation.

Other issues related to spectrum acquisition after 2010 involved the FCC’s (News - Alert) failure to take command as a matter of public safety, the lack of FCC fallow spectrum management, and private license acquisition complexity (all addressed in Part II). One problem, it appears, that did not cause the “spectrum issue” was a lack of funding by Congress. The lack of Congressional funding may be a problem related to implementing the full PTC system, but the spectrum was a small portion of the cost, estimated to be 6 percent of the PTC cost and not a gating factor.

In 2008, Congress passed The Rail Safety Improvement Act in response to a deadly train wreck killing 25. Congress mandated that the train industry install PTC by Dec. 31, 2015. Rather than allocate particular spectrum, as Congress did with public safety’s FirstNet in 2012, and which would have easily solved the PTC “spectrum issue”, Congress let the railroads solve the public safety spectrum issue themselves. We now see the result.

Amtrak PTC planners had more decade to figure out that acquiring 220mHz spectrum was vitally important. In the 1990s, Amtrak developed 900mHz Advanced Civil Speed Enforcement System. In 2000, Amtrak installed 900mHz ACSES on 206 miles of Northeast Corridor rail. Then, in 2002, Amtrak installed 220mHz Incremental Train Control System PTC. Amtrak reported that 220mHz ITCS was better than 900mHz ACSES because 220mHz transmitted data quicker and offered better coverage. Unlike Amtrak, the private freight railroads worked together, got started earlier, and planned better to solve the PTC acquisition spectrum issue. The private freight railroads settled on 220mHz and created a joint venture entity, PTC-220 LLC, to purchase spectrum. In June 2008, PTC-220 acquired from a third party the 220mHz band J-block license of paired 40 kHz spectrum blocks from 220.96-221mHz and 221.96-222mHz. After the freight railroads committed to 220mHz, Amtrak also committed to the spectrum but floundered in acquiring it.

Amtrak could have acted earlier to acquire spectrum through FCC auctions. Amtrak could have been active before the 2008 legislation and the 2011 acquisition problems by educating Congress and the FCC. The 220mHz spectrum was auctioned several times by the FCC. In 1994, the FCC auctioned 218-219mHz for $213 million as Interactive Video Data Service. In 1998, The FCC auctioned AMTS 220-222mHz for $21 million. In 2004, the FCC auctioned 220mHz spectrum for $1 million.  

It is clear that when Amtrak settled on the 220mHz band as the best spectrum for its PTC technology that obtaining spectrum was not going to be easy or simple. The designers of Amtrak’s PTC seemed to ignore the hard fact that 217mHz to 220mHz spectrum had been licensed. And when 217 to 220mHz came up for auction in 2004, Amtrak did not participate even though the nationwide AMTS spectrum was sold for just over $1 million. When the FCC issued its TV White Spaces 2008 to 2010 orders, making many VHF and UHF channels available, Amtrak could have encouraged the commission to carve out some of the spectrum near 220mHz for PTC, or Amtrak could have used the TV White Spaces cloud-database agile radio technology allowing PTC radios to change spectrum channels as spectrum became available in each geography. 

Barlow Keener (News - Alert) is the principal with Keener Law Group (

Edited by Dominick Sorrentino