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Officials straining to secure rail lines

(The following story by Jennifer Lin appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on April 4.)

PHILADELPHIA -- In a tunnel below City Hall, SEPTA inspectors with flashlights scan the dark recesses of the "red zone," a sensitive, underground nexus of three rail and subway lines.

The team checks stairwells, locked rooms, power lines, storage areas, looking for anything - or anyone - suspicious.

"Everything converges around City Hall," said James Jordan, SEPTA's assistant general manager of public safety. "A dirty bomb or chemical weapon here could shut down the city."

Thoughts like that preoccupy Jordan. The train attacks in Madrid on March 11 that killed 191 commuters were only further proof of the penchant of those who commit political violence for striking rail targets - and the difficulty of rail operators to stop them.

"Madrid was the worst-case scenario that anyone in transit safety knew was inevitable," Jordan said. "Public transit is wide open."

On Friday, the FBI's counterterrorism division and Homeland Security issued a warning saying rail, bus and subway systems could be terror targets during the summer in major U.S. cities. The announcement, the strongest to date regarding public transportation by those agencies, suggested steps municipalities could take to safeguard commuters.

Throughout the country, financially strapped commuter systems such as SEPTA are straining under the burden of improving the security of their trains and subways.

SEPTA, which is facing a $70 million deficit this year, has made spending on homeland security off-limits to budget cuts. But its resources are stretched, and SEPTA, like transit agencies everywhere, can expect little in the way of federal help.

While the nation's airports have received $11.7 billion since 9/11 to improve security, rapid transit systems have gotten $115 million in 2003 and 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. In next year's budget, the White House has offered no spending on rail security.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D., Del.), a daily Amtrak commuter from Wilmington to Washington, said Congress has "utterly failed" to make rail travel safer. Biden has cosponsored a bill to spend $515 million on rail security next year.

The funds, he explained, would be used for more transit police, bomb-detecting canine teams, security studies, and barriers for rail yards and switches.

"In the face of what happened in Madrid, how could they [Congress and the White House] possibly turn down security for basic, basic things?" Biden said in a phone interview from an Amtrak train.

Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said the Central Intelligence Agency has repeatedly warned that the nation's passenger rail system could be a terrorist target. He declined to comment further, citing the confidentiality of classified information, but added, "It's a likely target, and we've done nothing."

The terrorism threat goes beyond commuter rail lines to include the nation's 142,000 miles of freight rail. Any interruption in the flow of materials by rail would hurt the U.S. economy.

Stephen Gale, a homeland security expert for the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia, said there are eight to 10 critical tunnels and trestles around the country, many spanning the Mississippi River, that if sabotaged, could bring the U.S. economy to its knees.

"If you took them out simultaneously, it would be the end," Gale said. "You would not be able to move coal, steel, paper, food."

Amid mounting terrorism worries, Pennsylvania lawmakers will consider legislation to improve security along the state's 5,000 miles of track. A bill announced last week by State Rep. Richard Geist (R., Altoona) would provide $5 million in state loans for rail security, require railroads to train workers in emergency response, and stiffen penalties against trespassing on railroad property.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge recently said he asked transit and rail operators to be on a heightened state of alert.

Ridge said the Homeland Security Department would begin a pilot project this spring to test screening rail passengers and their baggage. No site has been selected.

"The security environment for trains will never resemble that for aviation," Ridge said, "but we think this program will provide the department with an opportunity to test new technologies and screening concepts."

Meanwhile, local transit agencies are forced to take matters into their own hands.

Since Sept. 11, the New Jersey Transit Police, which protects the state's rail, light-rail and bus system, has revamped its entire approach to security, said Chief Joseph Bober.

Bober said there is more emphasis on patrolling tunnels and bridges, which are now inspected on a daily basis. The transit force also has added four bomb-detecting canine teams and has increased the number of officers by a third.

But even those increases in manpower are not seen as enough.

In a letter sent Wednesday to Ridge, New Jersey Gov. McGreevey said the state needs to hire an additional 100 transit officers to secure 500 track miles, patrol 161 rail stations, and rotate officers on and off 600 trains a day.

McGreevey said it would cost the state $13 million to add that many officers.

But last year, the New Jersey Transit Corp. got only $2.3 million from the federal government for rail security - money that was restricted to capital projects and not for hiring police.

This year, the agency is not getting any federal money.

SEPTA, meanwhile, has been allotted $5.5 million total for 2003 and 2004, which will be used to upgrade radio communication between transit police and the city's fire and police departments.

Compared with airline security, the job of securing train travel is vastly more complicated.

"It's a lot easier to handle crowds and protect the airline industry versus our open society in mass transportation," Bober said.

Airports can inspect every passenger before boarding. But consider the logjam if SEPTA started screening the 50,000 commuters who come and go at Center City's Suburban Station every day.

Transit security experts explain that the best way to guard against terrorism in stations and tunnels is to add more eyes and ears - a costly solution for money-losing systems.

"Two things that work: cops in uniforms and lights," said SEPTA's Jordan.

SEPTA has improved lighting in stations, but its police force of 250 officers has not grown.

"That's really where the greatest need is," Jordan said. While the security force has not been cut, neither has it increased.

"There's no way we can enhance what we have without a solution to the budget crisis," Jordan said.

Meanwhile, Jordan and safety inspectors have to take on the task of securing Philadelphia's rail system one step at a time.

Literally.

On a recent morning, Jordan and a half-dozen engineers and transit police surveyed the half-mile of tunnel from Suburban Station to Market Street East.

Since 9/11, Jordan, a former city lawyer, said the tunnel inspections have become more thorough, more intense and more frequent.

"No one is being relaxed these days," Jordan said.

Monday, April 5, 2004

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