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Train station set as test site for screening of passengers

(The following story by Matthew L. Wald appeared on the New York Times website on April 16.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration plans to begin testing techniques next month for improving passenger rail security at a station in suburban Maryland that is served by Amtrak and commuter trains running between Washington and Baltimore, government officials said.

Passenger screening at the New Carrollton, Md., station will be conducted by the Transportation Security Administration, but will not be as invasive as airport searches.

"No one at New Carrollton will be asked to remove their belt or shoes," said Dan Stessel, an Amtrak spokesman.

The focus of the new program, called the Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot, or Trip, is not guns or knives, but bombs, officials said. Mark O. Hatfield Jr., a spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, said the issue was "a different threat, and different protocols." Trains cannot be hijacked or crashed into buildings, officials pointed out.

But since the bombings in Madrid on March 13, train operators around the country have been making announcements to their passengers to watch for unattended packages.

Mr. Hatfield said his agency was seeking "some good baseline information" on the effect that screening would have on passenger flow.

Among the differences from airport inspections, he said, was the kind of equipment that the security agency could use; the type it has installed at airports could not be used in the heat, cold and wet of railroad platforms, he said.

He added that testing or actual security measures might later be used in "traditional big East Coast indoor stations like Penn Station or Grand Central in New York."

Techniques to be tested at New Carrollton could include bomb-sniffing dogs or electronic detectors, officials said.

New Carrollton was chosen because it is convenient to the Department of Homeland Security's Washington headquarters and because its platforms are elevated in a way that makes it easy to control access, so passengers could be screened before the train arrived.

But that is unusual for commuter lines and Amtrak alike. Amtrak stops in more than 500 places around the United States, and fewer than half are staffed by a ticket agent or any other employee, according to the railroad. The railroad's president, David L. Gunn, described most of the stops as "platforms in the desert."

As a security precaution, Amtrak stopped selling tickets on board its Northeast corridor trains, between Washington and Boston, soon after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The change required that a traveler buy a ticket from an agent at a station, which requires showing a picture identification or sliding a credit card into a vending machine. The credit card contains information on the identity of the holder, who may or may not be the traveler.

In the Northeast corridor, passengers must show tickets on boarding, and may be asked to show identification, although they generally are not. Outside the corridor, passengers can buy tickets after they board.

Government security officials say they have discussed whether to compare the names of railroad ticket buyers to "watch lists," as is done with airplane passengers. Mr. Stessel said Amtrak had the capacity to supply such names but had not been asked to do so. He said providing the names would create "a number of constitutional considerations and privacy considerations that we would need to work out."

Generally, no identification is needed to buy a ticket on a commuter train, and those trains carry more people in close proximity than Amtrak trains do, although unattended packages might be more obvious on a commuter train.

In an effort to improve security, Amtrak has limited passengers on its Northeast corridor trains to two large carry-ons, like suitcases or boxes, not including purses, brief cases, backpacks and laptop cases. But it has not closed off the baggage storage areas at either end of many of its passenger cars. In contrast, many European rail systems have closed off those spaces since the Madrid bombings in March.

In speeches, officials of the Department of Homeland Security have also emphasized protecting rail bridges and tunnels. In testimony last fall, James M. Loy, then the administrator of the Transportation Security Administration, said his agency was also concerned about hazardous materials on the rails. One question, Mr. Loy said, was whether placing prominent labels on such materials helped or harmed security.

Friday, April 16, 2004

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