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Panel says rail system vulnerable to attack

(The following article by Anthony Flint was posted on the Boston Globe website on May 1.)

BOSTON -- The region's rail system is highly vulnerable to a terrorist attack and has not received adequate federal funding to improve security, a panel of local and state officials concluded yesterday.

"Five times as many people travel by train than by air, and yet airports have received $11 billion and $35 million has gone to rail," said US Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of South Boston, who organized the Northeast Rail Security Summit. "It's going to take an attack . . . to get these priorities reordered. People have got to wake up."

Concern about the vulnerability of subways, commuter trains, Amtrak, and rail freight has increased since the March 11 bombing of 10 commuter trains in Madrid that left 200 dead. Early last month, the US Department of Homeland Security issued a warning of terrorist attacks on transit systems this summer.

Several steps have been identified to protect trains and train stations, including improved communication systems, emergency response training, and a public awareness campaign to encourage passengers to report suspicious activity, said US Representative Michael E. Capuano, Democrat of Somerville, another host of the forum.

But homeland security funding isn't being directed where it is needed most, Capuano said. At the nation's airports, he said, "we have spent billions to take nail clippers away from passengers."

The rail system is more difficult to protect than air travel, because train and subway stations are more open environments where every passenger can't be checked, said Michael Mulhern, general manager of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority.

"We're vulnerable," he said. "We're designed to move the masses."

Brian Roehrkasse, spokesman for the US Department of Homeland Security, said in a telephone interview yesterday that the agency "has been investing in programs that target the greatest risks." He said a pilot program will be announced next week to investigate new technologies for rail security, "understanding that we can't put in the exact same screening systems that are in place in the aviation system."

Meanwhile, the MBTA has stepped up its system for threat assessment, made changes to the flow of passengers in some stations, removed or hardened trash barrels, and plans a $50 million upgrade to the radio system, Mulhern said. The T has also instituted training programs for employees and simulated attacks to test emergency response.

More research and development is needed to come up with additional measures to keep "a couple of guys with a few thousand dollars from wrecking a train," said Edward Badolato, vice president for homeland security for the Shaw Group, an engineering firm.

"The people we're up against, they don't think inside the box," he said.

The same urgency in protecting air travel, which swept the country after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, should be brought to the rail system, said John Martino, the T's deputy chief of police. "The safest way to travel right now is to fly," he said. "We need the same hue and cry for rail."

The panelists also highlighted another threat: hazardous cargo carried by rail. While authorities have described it as an accident, the acid leak from a tanker car at Sullivan Square last month was on the minds of many local officials. Tanker cars containing deadly cargo can be easily tampered with while they are sitting in railyards, said Salem Police Sergeant Michael Andreas. A foreign national was recently arrested after being seen taking photographs of tanker cars in Salem, he said.

US Representative John F. Tierney, Democrat of Salem, said he wanted to know more about how hazardous rail freight near population centers is regulated.

Edward A. Flynn, the state secretary of public safety, said the rail system has clearly been identified "as an attractive soft target for terrorists. That's why we have to be strategic with our funding decisions. This is not about making sure everybody gets something; we have to be focusing where the risks are."

Monday, May 3, 2004

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