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Test program screens rail passengers for bombs

(Reuters circulated the following article on May 4.)

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. -- The government launched a pilot program on Tuesday to screen U.S. rail passengers and their bags for bombs, but expectations are measured as planners assess whether the approach is practical.

``We need to learn through this and see how it works in the transit environment,'' Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, told reporters at a Maryland station.

Demand for tighter U.S. rail security surged after the March 11 Madrid bombings that killed nearly 200 people.

Moving ahead of congressional demands to broaden transportation security, the Homeland Security Department announced a plan in recent weeks to further address needs for commuter systems and Amtrak.

Authorities are testing technology developed by L-3 Communications and a unit of General Electric Co. already used in other areas.

The GE device uses a puff of air blown onto passengers standing in a walk-through booth to detect trace amounts of explosives. It costs about $130,000 per unit and is already in use at nuclear power plants, company officials said.

The L-3 system scans bags for bombs and is a modified version of screening technology used at airports overseas. An individual unit costs roughly $500,000.

But homeland security officials are unsure if the enhancements will suit the pace and volume of a commuter station. Passenger volume is swift and rail schedules are tight because trains from various systems share tracks, signals and stations.

Additionally, criteria for rail screening is limited. The intention is only to screen trains when there is a specific threat to the nation's railway system, Hutchinson said.

There are no plans to screen in subway systems.

Homeland security officials are also mindful of the political, financial and practical pitfalls of big-ticket security programs. The multibillion-dollar overhaul and federalization of airport security after the 2001 hijack attacks included the installation of bag-screening technology and 45,000 screeners.

Screeners would be needed to operate the rail security program as well.

Amtrak President David Gunn said recently that rail screening should be done if technology can be adapted. On an average weekday, Amtrak carries 66,000 people on 250 trains.

Commuter lines carry hundreds of thousands of passengers daily.

The 30-day pilot program is based outside Washington at the New Carrollton station where 1,000 passengers use commuter and Amtrak service daily.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

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