What held up Amtrak's safety system

How 'Positive Train Control' works
How 'Positive Train Control' works

By the end of the year Amtrak hopes to finish an automatic braking system that could have prevented the fatal accident in Philadelphia. It has taken seven years to get to this point.

There are many reasons it took so long, including budget shortfalls, years of litigation that Amtrak had no control over, and the hard task of updating old technology.

But the final piece of the puzzle was not complete until two months ago when Amtrak finally got control of the airwaves necessary to operate the system.

The braking system, called Positive Train Control, or PTC, uses radio communications, among other technologies, to automatically slow down or stop a train to prevent crashes and derailments. Without the radio spectrum, Amtrak couldn't finish the job.

The New York Times reported that Amtrak tried and failed for four years to get the airwaves for the braking system. After a close look at government records and interviews with some of the parties involved, CNNMoney has pieced together a timeline of what Amtrak had to go through and why it has taken so long.

It all started in 2008. Following a fatal train crash in Los Angeles, Congress mandated that Amtrak and other railways work to install PTC systems -- but it provided neither funding nor rights to the airwaves needed to do it. It was up to the railroads to come up with the funding and the wireless spectrum themselves.

Amtrak tries to buy airwaves. Two years later, in 2010, Amtrak entered negotiations with a company called Skybridge Spectrum Foundation for a small swath of airwaves the railway planned to use for PTC.

Since 1999, Skybridge has held the rights to the majority of the nation's airwaves in the low-200 MHz frequencies -- the very range of frequencies that has developed into America's standard for PTC communications. The FCC licenses the nation's airwaves, but the commission allows companies to buy and sell the rights to wireless spectrum on the open market.

Related: Who are the victims of the crash?

But Amtrak's purchase got held up. At the time that Amtrak was looking to buy the spectrum of airwaves, Skybridge was engaged in active lawsuits with two companies that claimed Skybridge's wireless spectrum interfered with their airwaves. Amtrak opted not to buy the spectrum until the lawsuits were cleared up, according to Warren Havens, Skybridge's president.

"There were a lot of complexities we and other rail companies faced in acquiring PTC spectrum licenses," said Marc Magliari, a spokesman for Amtrak.

Infrastructure funding divides lawmakers
Infrastructure funding divides lawmakers

Amtrak proceeds anyway. Meanwhile, Amtrak worked to build out the infrastructure of its PTC systems at the same time it was trying to secure the spectrum it needed to operate them. The railroad spent tens of millions of dollars over the past several years installing the system.

Also, as it waited for Skybridge's lawsuits to end, Amtrak asked the FCC to simply give it the spectrum through a process similar to eminent domain, by which the government uses its powers to take over private property like land or, in this case, spectrum space. But that would have taken an act of Congress -- something lawmakers declined to do.

So Amtrak waited.

Havens claims that the two companies he was fighting in court were not actually putting their spectrum to any use, and they were simply hanging onto it in hopes of licensing or selling their airwaves. Havens also said the agency declined to strip the companies of their spectrum licenses.

"That crash did not have to happen," said Havens. "Amtrak could have had the spectrum it needed years ago if the FCC did one tenth of its job."

An FCC official said the FCC did its job by actively looking into Havens' complaints and referring the matter to an administrative law hearing for an investigation.

"The FCC proceedings related to Mr. Haven's complaints about another licensee in no way prohibited him from selling his own licensed spectrum," the official said.

Amtrak's Magliari said he couldn't speculate whether the company's PTC systems would have been activated sooner had it acquired the airwaves in a more timely fashion.

Related: Why doesn't the U.S. have better trains?

Lawsuits end and Amtrak gets the spectrum. Last year, one of the companies Skybridge was fighting in court settled, and the company was able to sell Amtrak the spectrum it had requested.

The deal was agreed upon in December 2014, and in March, Amtrak finalized its application to use the spectrum, and filed it with the FCC. The FCC granted the application within two days.

In the end, Amtrak bought a very small piece of spectrum -- just 100 KHz between 217 MHz and 217.1 MHz. Havens declined to say how much he sold the spectrum for, citing a nondisclosure agreement. But a source with knowledge of the deal said it was for less than $10 million.

With the airwaves finally under its control, Amtrak is now testing its PTC system. The railroad has said it plans to have it up and running by the end of 2015.

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