Not surprisingly, Mr. LaHood says he felt safe.
But, are the rails really as secure as they can be?
The question is important considering that as part of its treasure trove of intelligence gathered up at Osama bin Laden’s compound, was a plan to try to disrupt rail transportation on the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
Considering bin Laden’s interest in rail – including bombings in Europe – some legislators are wondering if Amtrak should emulate airlines with a “no ride list,” that duplicates the “no fly list.” Unlike air travelers, rail passengers do not have to go through electronic scanning machines or have their luggage checked. And most Amtrak trains don’t have armed marshals aboard as some flights to.
“We’re going to look at all these security matters,” Mr. LaHood said at a press conference on Monday in New York. “We’re going to look at everything and then we’ll make a judgment with our friends in Congress and decide what direction we should go.”
This year, as part of the budget cutting process, Congress cut $50 million from a $300 million grant program that was supposed to be used to beef up rail security. In 2010, that grant program provided Boston with $21.9 million, New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority $75 million, and Chicago $10.3 million.
“I think we ought to reexamine that and try to restore that money and maybe make it go a little further,” said Sen. Schumer, who joined LaHood at the press conference.
Schumer said it’s possible that Amtrak will begin to implement a “no-ride list” since the rail carrier knows the names of the people traveling on each train.
“It does not seem that difficult to do,” says Schumer. “They are looking at it right now, looking at the feasibility,” he says.
According to a May 5 article in the Wall Street Journal, there are 12,000 people on the FBI’s no-fly list and another 460,000 on a watch list that requires secondary screening before they are allowed on a plane.
However, security experts believe it’s more difficult to do than to harden airline security. For example, the airlines check passenger names against the no-fly list, a process that can take hours.
“In the case of a train, you can walk to a kiosk, slide a credit card and you’re on a train,” says Daniel Kaniewski, deputy director of the George Washington University Homeland Security Policy Institute in Washington. “Will it deny boarding?” [Editor's note: This paragraph was inadvertently dropped from the original version and has been restored.]
Mr. Kaniewski points out that airplanes have been diverted if security operations discover someone on the no-fly list is on the plane. More recently, passengers have to enter their sex, middle name and date of birth to get a ticket.
Many people also take trains because they don’t have to go through long security lines, take their shoes off and submit to intrusive pat-downs.
“Rail would no longer be desirable from a users’ standpoint,” says Kaniewski.
Although Al Qaeda has conducted operations against trains in Europe, he says there does not appear to be any specific evidence the terror group actually took any action to implement the plan in the US. “This was just one item that was disclosed and it may not be the most credible,” he says.
The main reason LaHood was in New York was not to talk about security, rather to announce $2 billion in high speed rail awards, money that originally was supposed to go to Florida for a high speed train between Tampa and Orlando. However, Gov. Rick Scott (R) turned down the money because he thought there would not be enough riders and that the state would have to pick up the operating cost.
“If Florida does not want the money, we’ll be glad to use it,” said Schumer.
The US DOT funds will go toward speeding up trains in the Northeast Corridor as well between St. Louis and Chicago. In the case of the Northeast Corridor, top speeds will be increased from 135 mph to 160 mph in a 24 mile segment of track. This will further cut the travel time between New York and Boston.
In addition, some of the money will go toward an investment in state-of-the-art rail cars for California and the Midwest. And, some of the money will be used to lay the groundwork for the nation’s first 220 miles an hour high speed rail system in California that will link Los Angeles and San Francisco.
According to Amtrak’s president, Joseph Boardman, the 220 m.p.h. train in California is still about 10 years away.
One improvement that riders in the Northeast will see is more seats, said Mr. Boardman. Amtrak is ordering another 40 new coach cars capable of traveling at the new higher speeds. This will add two new cars to each train. Many of the trains are sold out so this should help alleviate that problem. However, he says it’s not feasible to add more cars since the stations themselves are not long enough.