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Amtrak chief says rail screening must be nimble

(Reuters circulated the following story by John Crawley on April 14.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Amtrak passengers and bags should be screened for bombs if technology can be adapted to the high volume and open nature of rail travel, the passenger railroad's president said on Wednesday.

In comments a month after the Madrid train bombings and subsequent law enforcement warnings about possible attacks against U.S. rail systems this summer, Amtrak President David Gunn embraced screening if important hurdles could be cleared.

"You will never have the ability to seal the system as you do an airport," Gunn said in an interview with Washington's WTOP radio. "The issue is the physical capability of doing the screening."

The nation's only intercity passenger railroad carries 66,000 people on 250 trains on an average weekday. Its security responsibilities include 500 stations, some like bustling Pennsylvania Station in New York, and others, Gunn said, are no more than a "platform in the desert." Amtrak trains run on 22,000 miles of track, much of it owned by freight railroads.

The Transportation Security Administration plans to test screening technologies for rail networks in response to the heightened security and new congressional pressure.

Gunn said government and industry were looking at methods more adaptable than the bulky, fixed and expensive screening programs in place at airports since the 2001 hijack attacks. He also does not envision rail passengers removing their shoes like air travelers are sometimes required to do for security.

"There may be screening devices that are technically feasible that would allow you (to check passengers) in a less intrusive way. If that's technically feasible it should be done," Gunn said.

Separately, Gunn struck out at proposals to dismantle Amtrak, which has sustained substantial annual losses throughout its 33-year history. Critics decry historic inefficiencies despite subsidies that will hit $1.22 billion this year.

Plans initiated by the Bush administration and a proposal unveiled on Wednesday by Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and chairman of the Commerce Committee, envision a greater role for states, which could contract out some or all of Amtrak routes.

"It is past time for Congress to come to terms with Amtrak's problems and why it is largely a failure," McCain said.

But Gunn said talk of successfully privatizing some or all of Amtrak is fanciful.

"All you have to do is look at the British experience. The British rail system is near collapse because they followed this idea that you could privatize a business that is basically unprofitable," Gunn said.

Thursday, April 15, 2004

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