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Train station security checks start this week

(The following article by Bruce Landis was posted on the Providence Journal website on November 21.)

WARWICK, R.I. -- The federal Transportation Security Administration will begin this week sporadic patrols at the state’s railroad stations for explosive devices, the head of the agency’s Rhode Island office said yesterday.

Joseph S. Salter, head of the TSA’s office at T.F. Green Airport, said the initiative reflects a broadening of the agency’s focus to pay more attention to surface transportation rather than a response to information about a threat.

The improved security will not be at the level applied to air travel. Passengers will periodically see uniformed officers and dogs trained to detect explosives at the railroad stations, Salter said, and plainclothes officers will also be at the stations sometimes.

The TSA has for five years focused mostly on airplane security. But Salter said that in light of train bombings in Madrid, London and, most recently, Mumbai, “preventing the introduction of improvised explosive devices on to passenger trains is of the highest priority.”

A series of seven explosions killed at least 174 people on commuter trains and in stations in the Indian financial capital of Mumbai in July. Analysts compared that attack with the mass transit bombings in Madrid in 2004 and in London last year, saying they were all well-coordinated and involved multiple explosions.

“There’s no credible information that there’s any threat” to trains here, Salter said. On the other hand, he also said, “It’s not a matter of will it happen, it’s a matter of when or where.” Salter described the new program at a news conference near the security checkpoint at the departure area at T.F. Green Airport, saying that its goal is “to deter terrorism acts along the rail lines of Rhode Island.”

Amtrak stops at three stations in Rhode Island: Westerly, West Kingston and Providence. Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority trains also serve Providence.

Salter said the manpower for the railroad station patrols will come from the Providence and Westerly police and from the state police, along with TSA officers. He said passengers will also, on occasion, see officers with dogs trained to detect explosives “moving about through the crowds.” He said the patrols will also be looking for “people who are under stress” as evidenced by their behavior.

Citing a need for secrecy, Salter wouldn’t say how often the patrols will take place or make public a number of other details about them. Part of the intent of the initiative, he said, is to leave considerable doubt about what will be done and when, so that terrorists can’t use the information for planning.

“You can’t be everywhere at the same time,” Salter said, so the agency will adopt an unpredictable “now you see us, now you don’t” approach.

Beyond trying to keep any would-be terrorists off balance, Salter said his agency wants to improve its capacity to deal with increased threats, to get “where we can handle it if the balloon goes up a little higher.”

The TSA has hired more than 100 inspectors devoted to surface transportation nationally, the agency officials said, but they would not say how many staff members it has in Rhode Island.

TSA spokeswoman Ann Davis said, however, that the agency won’t reimburse the police departments for extra duty for their officers. The federal government has done that for some law enforcement initiatives such as extra anti-drunken-driving patrols.

Security on the trains will remain the province of the rail operators, he said. In Rhode Island, the operators are Amtrak and the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

The TSA has been experimenting with ways to improve railroad security for several years. Those included pilot programs in Connecticut, Washington, D.C., and Maryland in 2004. The TSA used various technologies to screen passengers, baggage and cargo. In Connecticut, the agency installed an x-ray machine on a train car on the state’s Shoreline East commuter rail line in July 2004, Davis said.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

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