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Amtrak security screening unveiled

(The following story by Kristina Herrndobler appeared on the Chicago Tribune website on May 5.)

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. -- The Department of Homeland Security on Tuesday unveiled a test system to screen Amtrak and commuter rail passengers for explosive material before they board trains, saying that even if the system proves successful, it would only be used in the event of a specific threat of attack.

During the 30-day trial, passengers at the train station in this Washington suburb will be asked to arrive five to 10 minutes early so they and their bags can be screened. Some 1,000 passengers a day ride Amtrak and the Maryland commuter rail service, MARC, from the New Carrollton station. While the Washington Metro subway system goes through the station, Metro passengers will not be screened.

Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, said the system is not intended to be used at every commuter rail system around the country.

"The purpose of this pilot program is not to put out a new uniform inspection requirement for passengers in the transit environment," Hutchinson said. "The purpose of this is to test the screening systems in the passenger rail environment so that in the event there is a specific threat or a specific need, we have the knowledge, the capability, to put inspection in place."

Hutchinson said the Department of Homeland Security was looking into commuter rail security before the March 11th attacks in Madrid that killed 191 people, but said the attacks "underscore the importance of continuing to increase passenger rail safety in the United States."

The New Carrollton test system includes a baggage-screening machine that scans for explosive materials and a detection device that a rider stands under for about 12 seconds as the machine shoots bursts of air at the passenger and then analyzes it. If the equipment detects traces of explosive materials, the passenger will be searched by hand.

Hutchinson said two other phases in the pilot project are planned, including using on-board detection equipment to check passengers for explosives.

Greg Hull, the director of operations, safety and security programs at the American Public Transportation Association, said that the testing of explosive detection technology is important, but not the only step needed to ensure commuter rail safety.

"While we welcome these types of initiatives, we have other needs that we have identified to the Department of Homeland Security that are certainly much broader in scope," Hull said, including more funding for security.

According to Hull, the government has spent over $11 billion on security for the aviation industry, but only $115 million on rail security in the past two years.

Morris Rice, a resident of Silver Spring, Md., frequently uses the New Carrollton station when he travels. He said some passengers may feel that the detection machines infringe on their right to privacy, but that they will also deter a terrorist from bringing bombs aboard trains.

"I don't think anything would actually happen here," Rice said. "But I do think tightening up security is in the best interest of the country."

Ed Wytkind, executive director of the Transportation Trades Department at the AFL-CIO, said the Transportation Security Administration's funding of security measures on the nation's railways is minimal.

Wytkind said rail employees need more training on how to respond to emergencies, including a possible terrorist attack. Wytkind also said rail workers must be protected from punishment if they speak out about possible flaws in security.

"We are not directing the resources we need into rail security and we should be," Wytkind said.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

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