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Senators press program to improve rail security

(The following article by Gebe Martinez was posted on the Houston Chronicle website on April 8.)

WASHINGTON -- Mindful of the terrorist bombing of a Spanish commuter train, a bipartisan group of U.S. senators is renewing the push for a $1.1 billion program to improve security along the passenger and freight rail network that runs through Houston and other American urban centers.

The federal government essentially has overlooked trains, many of which carry hazardous cargo, as potential targets, according to U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, and some of her colleagues.

"I think we have not focused on (rail) because our priorities have been aviation, since that was the 9/11 vehicle," she said in reference to the hijacked passenger jets that hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on Sept. 11, 2001.

While nearly $11 billion has been spent on airline security since 9/11, the rail security task has been largely left to Amtrak, which carries about 24 million passengers annually; a hodgepodge of local governments and private rail carriers that own most of the tracks across the country.

"In all candor, we probably would not be doing anything now if it were not for Madrid," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The panel will vote on the rail security bill today. Similar rail measures stalled in Congress, but McCain suggested this effort would go further because of heightened awareness about huge security gaps in a ground transportation system that is wide open and harder than aviation to control.

The proposal includes a provision by Hutchison to improve the tracking of cargo unloaded at ports, such as the Port of Houston, and then placed on trains for delivery across the country.

Hutchison wants to require by 2007 the placement of "smart box" tracing on freight in which 50 percent of the cargo has come from foreign ports.

Texas receives more international tonnage than any other state and also has 13 deepwater ports, many of which move freight by rail, Hutchison said.

Houston's port is the nation's second-largest.

Because of legislative inaction, Amtrak and the freight rail carriers are ineligible for Department of Homeland Security grants.

Public transit agencies are set to receive $115 million in grants, but only one Texas system, the Trinity Railway Express in the Dallas area, won money: about $800,000.

The March 11 Madrid bombings created security worries about the Republican and Democratic presidential nominating conventions this summer in New York and Boston, respectively.

The cities are important hubs of the Amtrak passenger system.

The New York convention site, Madison Square Garden, sits over several rail lines and subway routes and is near Penn Station. Boston's Fleet Center is atop the city's North Station.

The stations will partially or completely close during the conventions, an Amtrak spokesman said.

Most of the $700 million would help secure and improve vulnerable tunnels along Amtrak's northeastern corridor, including lines underneath the U.S. Supreme Court and the House of Representatives.

Sen. Tom Carper, D-Del., a co-sponsor of the rail security bill and a former Amtrak board member who rides Amtrak daily, said the security burden should not fall on the carriers.

Until now, rail security has received little attention by the Bush administration and congressional leaders, Carper said last month. He said the administration's focus is "more on how to recover from an attack than on how to prevent one."

The homeland security agency has several plans to improve rail security, keyed to providing support in response to a threat and improving public awareness.

"We have received a lot of assurances, but I believe we've seen very little action," Carper said.

The bill's sponsors have called for a greater police presence at rail facilities, bomb-sniffing dogs and a study of selected screening of rail passengers and baggage.

Thursday, April 8, 2004

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