Lawmakers to FCC: Allow trains to be run automatically

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Supporters of automatic train operation systems have argued that they will greatly reduce the possibility of human error that can occur in normal cases when trains are controlled by people.

However, critics have noted that the failure of automatic operation systems led to the crash of two trains on the Washington, D.C. Metrorail subway system in 2009.

The House members did not weigh in on the controversy on Thursday. Instead, they wrote that the communications’ agency should approve the installation of the PTC systems so they can be tested for improvements that have been made since previous accidents.

“Apparently recognizing that the FCC’s processes cannot accommodate the railroads’ statutorily mandated PTC implementation schedule, the FCC staff has advised the railroads not to proceed with any applications for environmental and historic review until an approach for expediting the notification and review processes can be determined,” the lawmakers wrote. “Accordingly, PTC antenna installation activities by the railroads have been essentially put on hold until the FCC staff advises the railroads that they can start again.”

The letter was signed by House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman Bill Shuster (R-Pa.), House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-Mich.) and Reps. Jeff Denham (R-Calif.) and Greg Walden (R-Ore.), the chairmen of the House’s subcommittees on rail and technology.

The 2008 Rail Safety Improvement Act calls for all train systems in the U.S. to operate trains automatically by 2015. 

The lawmakers called for the FCC to “expeditiously” approve the installation of the technology to allow the deadline to possibly still be met.

“The delay caused by this freeze and the FCC’s environmental and historic review processes adversely affects the railroads’ ability to deploy PTC and delays implementation of safety systems mandated by Congress,” they wrote. “We urge the FCC to move expeditiously to put a process in place to facilitate the timely deployment of PTC.”