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TSA plans rail security pilot program

(The following article by Chris Strohm was posted on GovExec.com on April 19.)

The Transportation Security Administration will launch a pilot program in May to test technologies that could be used to screen passengers and baggage within the rail and commuter train industry, officials said Monday.

The pilot marks the first time TSA and the rail transit industry have teamed to examine how passenger and baggage screening activities that have become commonplace at the nation's airports might be applied at train stations. Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the effort March 22 after bombs ripped through the public transit system in Madrid, killing 191 people and injuring more than 1,500 others.

"The point of this project is to look at leveraging certain technologies that are now available and seeing what the feasibility is for putting them in," said TSA spokesman Darrin Kayser. "This allows us to look at cost, passenger throughput and how it's going to be able to mitigate certain threats. By doing this pilot we are able to get information. By getting this information we're able to make better decisions down the road."

The project is slated to last about one month, possibly more, at the transit station in New Carrollton, Md., Kayser said. TSA will screen for explosives, but has not decided yet what specific kind of technology will be tested. The agency also has discussed whether it will test technology that can detect other threats, such as chemical and biological agents. Kayser added that TSA still has to determine how the checkpoint will be staffed.

The New Carrollton station serves three main rail transit options: the Washington-area Metrorail system, Amtrak and the Maryland Area Rail Commuter light rail system. Officials acknowledge, however, that airport screening technology and processes cannot be migrated to the rail community, given the high volume of passengers and number of open access points.

"The ...technology has not been finalized, but it's going to be different than what you see at airports," Kayser said. "In the rail environment there are different challenges, so we are going to be looking for different items, mainly explosives on carry-on bags."

The public rail industry greeted the pilot program favorably.

"I believe it is a step in the right direction," said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security programs for the American Public Transportation Association, which represents more than 1,500 organizations. "It's clear that the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration will be moving forward in the areas of research and technology for security, and certainly as it applies to transportation modes."

Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel said he does not anticipate the pilot program will affect service as TSA will work to minimize delays. "We're pleased that the TSA has turned its attention to ground-based transportation security, and we will continue to work cooperatively with TSA and their efforts," he said.

TSA is not requesting at this time that rail services provide passenger information, Stessel added. Amtrak is capable of providing such information, but would first need to evaluate whether doing so would impact its privacy policy and raise constitutional questions.

Hull said APTA advocates the need for a joint program to address security concerns in public mass transit, which includes bus and boat transit as well as rail. While aviation security has received about $11 billion since the Sept. 11 attacks, only $115 million has been earmarked for transit agencies. Public transit agencies have spent about $1.7 billion on security since Sept. 11, which came primarily from customer fares and local tax sources.

On Monday, APTA called on Congress to provide $2 billion in Homeland Security's fiscal 2005 budget to improve security for millions of transit riders. In written testimony to the House and Senate subcommittees on Homeland Security Appropriations, APTA asked that $1.2 billion be provided for capital security needs and $800 million for security-related operating costs.

But Hull said APTA wants DHS and TSA to work in partnership with the industry to take action.

"What we are looking for is a partnership involving the Department of Homeland Security and Transportation Security Administration to jointly determine future directions and focus points for research and technologies, rather than industry having to react to announcements made by [the government]," he said.

Tuesday, April 20, 2004

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