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Opinion: A false sense of security

(The following column by Ray Sanchez appeared on the Newsday website on April 26.)

NEW YORK -- The conductor stuck her head out the subway car window at Columbus Circle early yesterday as a middle-aged couple drew closer. "Train to Grand Street?" asked a round man with graying hair and a black camera bag strapped around a navy sports coat.

"This is it," the conductor said.

The visitors waited as a cluster of riders left the train and a new group rushed inside. "This is what I love about the people," the woman was saying. "They keep taking the subway."

Without the trains, there is no city.

Once seated, the man picked up a discarded newspaper bearing headlines about more Americans dead in Afghanistan and Iraq and still-unanswered questions about the nearly 3-year-old Al-Qaida slaughter. He put it back.

"Here we go," the woman said giddily as the downtown D departed.

Seated behind them, a woman who held an infant in a blue blanket smiled at the remark. The couple struck up a conversation with three young people who said they were middle and high school teachers. They were from Rochester and Long Island.

"Where are you guys from?" a young man asked.

"D.C.," said the woman.

"I lived in Alexandria," said a young woman seated across from them on the train.

"You all have a fabulous subway," the woman said.

"We would never take the Metro this late at night," the man said. Washington's Metro closes at midnight every weekday, 3 a.m. Saturday and Sunday. It was after midnight now. The D train was crowded.

The conductor stood in the cab of the subway car, her door ajar. People have a false sense of security on the subway, she said. "The politicians who never ride the trains are very reassuring, aren't they?"

The New York Police Department is rushing to train 10,000 officers in counter-terrorism in time for the summer's Republican National Convention, but there are transit workers without fire and evacuation training.

"I'm one of them," said the conductor, who has eight years on the job. "You hope common sense is enough to get you through an emergency, but, you know, common sense goes out the window."

Plans by the city Office of Emergency Management to simulate a weapon of mass destruction attack at Penn Station last month were scratched after the sides involved could not agree on how to carry it out without disrupting riders and commerce. More than 500,000 people move through the station every day, using Amtrak, the Long Island Rail Road, and New Jersey Transit. In August, the convention will bring about 48,000 to Madison Square Garden, which sits above Penn Station. The station has rail tunnels handling more than 1,000 trains every day.

The 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin gas attack in the Tokyo subway, which resulted in a dozen fatalities, highlighted the difficulty in deploying weapons of mass destruction. The terrorist group on nine occasions failed to launch a successful attack prior to the incident. Experts believe that terrorists are far more likely to use conventional bombs, as was the case with the deadly Madrid train bombings on March 11.

On a Sunday morning next month, at least some transit workers are expected to participate in a simulated subway explosion at the Bowling Green station in lower Manhattan.

Additionally, Transport Workers Union Local 100 is trying to schedule a security summit with federal, state and local officials to coordinate counter-terrorism efforts and lobby for more federal money for training.

"We have not been trained adequately for a large-scale emergency," the conductor said. "We know it. The people who run the system know it. Hopefully, we will never have to show the proof."

Passengers were lulled by the slow rocking of the car as the D train started across the Manhattan Bridge early yesterday morning. The motorman, a veteran of 15 years, said the view of the Brooklyn Bridge and South Street Seaport illuminated in the hazy night was one of his favorites.

"I always say a little prayer when taking a train over a bridge or under the East River," he said. "I just ask: Lord, if something happens, please let me know what to do."

Monday, April 26, 2004

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