Railroads try to prevent a 9/11 on the tracks
Some train passengers face airport-style bag screening, an effort that could go nationwide.
OLD SAYBROOK, CONN. — From the outside, the last car on the 7:20 to New Haven looks like any other commuter train. But inside, it is unlike any other passenger car in the nation: While the Shore Line East train rolls along, travelers must run their bags through an X-ray machine and watch as their tickets are checked for traces of explosives. Although no one has to take their shoes off or undergo a "wanding," the sight of an armed guard is a reminder that the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) means business.
While such screening may not happen anytime soon on most commuter lines, there is no doubt that rail systems around the nation are tightening security. In the wake of the March bombing in Madrid, officials are moving quickly to find a workable security solution, and they've started with everything from removing trash cans to conducting public-awareness campaigns.
Only last week, officials searched a train in Newark, N.J., after a threatening note was reportedly found in a restroom.
"I think the transit system has to be a primary focus because we know Al Qaeda uses it," says Bernard Kerick, former New York Police Department commissioner. "So is it something that they might consider in this country? Absolutely."
The Shore Line pilot plan is the third such federal security test. The first one, in New Carrollton, Md., tried screening passengers prior to boarding a train. The second pilot program tested checked bags and cargo prior to boarding at Union Station in Washington. This third test, which performs the security checks aboard a moving train, began last week and will run until the third week of August.
"The data from all three phases will inform us about any next steps and gives us the information to deploy this program in a targeted fashion should a special event or credible intelligence dictate a need," says Ann Davis, a spokesman for the TSA in Boston.
While the TSA is experimenting, Congress is also moving forward on legislation that would fund heightened rail security and new technology and also direct the nation's rail systems to prepare comprehensive contingency plans. The industry is pressing Congress to dig deep. "The feds have committed $115 million for transit security. We've asked for $6 billion more over the next three years," says William Millar, president of the American Public Transit Association in Washington.
Mr. Millar says the new money would go toward upgrading radio communications, improving security in train-storage areas, installing more closed-circuit television, expanding canine patrols, and offering more training. "We need proper funding. What we don't need is another wake-up call that occurred in Madrid," he says.
At least one of the proposed bills provides for a significant increase in funding to upgrade the tunnels in the Northeast corridor. Millar says the tunnels need better surveillance. "We also need ways to close off the tunnels when needed and to make sure the emergency exits are up to date for the threats of today."
Even before any funding starts to flow, many rail systems are acting on their own. In Los Angeles, for example, Metrolink, the regional rail system, is replacing its closed trash cans with a $180 wire-mesh variety that is used in Britain. It makes it easier to see what's in the trash and makes the can less of a weapon if a bomb is placed in it.
Metrolink is also training its employees and police on what to look for when walking the system's platforms and tunnels. Since much of its system is also used for freight, it is working with those carriers on improved inspections, particularly in the transport of hazardous material. "We are trying to create enough tools and visual elements so we are not an easy target," says David Solow, chief executive officer.
Like other systems, DART, the regional rail system in Dallas, is asking customers to report any suspicious bags or people. "But it's still not the same as additional people whose total job is to look for things out of the ordinary and [who] are skilled [in addressing] those things if they find something," says Kathy Waters, vice president for commuter rail operations. "That's why I would like to see more people, more eyes, more inspections, more presence."
Residents of Boston will notice an increased presence, especially this week. Police have already announced random searches of bags on trains. "They will be looking for explosives with a system that can find a trace detection in about eight seconds," says John Cohen, president of PSComm, which is a security consultant to the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority. "It's been thought through carefully with civil libertarians and minimum intrusion" in mind.
Commuter groups say they hope for a balance between safety and the ability to travel without being hassled. "The riding public wants a safe and secure system," says Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign in New York, where the police are now showing a more visible presence on the subways. "But there has to be balance between safety and people's ability to move around the system."
That's one of the goals of the Shore Line program, which is affecting about 200 to 300 commuters per day. On the train, there are eight screeners, a supervisor, an armed guard, and two data collectors. Tony Pinto, one of the TSA managers, says the screeners have been trained to say "good morning" and be nonthreatening to the commuters. "We see them every day, and this is their world," he says. "We're trying not to be disruptive."
Connecticut commuters say they don't mind the additional security. "It's no big deal. It's the right thing to do," says Bruce MacMillian, on his way to his office in New Haven. June Marini, a commuter from Clinton, agrees: "The more security checks, the better."