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Screening begins at Maryland train station

(The following article by Matthew L. Wald was posted on the New York Times website on May 4.)

NEW CARROLLTON, Md. -- It was not quite the full airport treatment, but on Tuesday passengers boarding Amtrak and commuter trains here just outside Washington began walking through a machine that sniffs for explosives, and putting their bags through an X-ray unit that looks for bombs.

The inspections will continue for 30 days, to be followed by a test of the ability to screen bags checked at Union Station in Washington, and screening on the trains themselves.

The Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has no plans to make any of these measures permanent, said Asa Hutchinson, the undersecretary for border and transportation security. But he said the agency wanted to know what it could do "so that in the event there is a specific threat or a specific need, we have the knowledge, the capability to put inspections in place in a particular threat environment."

Mr. Hutchinson said the agency had been planning the screening tests even before the train bombings in Madrid in March. Those attacks were not preceded by any warning.

One purpose of the test is to see how much delay the scanning will create, and how much commuters can stand, Mr. Hutchinson said. "If ridership goes down, that's bad," he said.

Edward Hoes, of Annapolis, Md., who was boarding a train to New York for a meeting, said a brief wait was not a problem. But Mr. Hoes had arrived half an hour before his Amtrak train was scheduled, and he said he foresaw problems during the morning rush hour, when the station would normally be "absolutely packed." The first test during the morning rush will be Wednesday.

About 1,000 passengers board trains here each weekday.

The checkpoint, set up in a tunnel that passengers use to get to the platforms, was equipped with a monitor a bit like the metal detectors at airports but bigger. The monitor, built by GE Ion Track, puffs air at the passenger and sweeps the air into an overhead chamber that assesses whether molecules in the air could be components of explosives.

Mr. Hutchinson showed how the device worked by walking into the portal and stopping until the light overhead changed from red to green, indicating that the scan was complete. It took 14 seconds.

Company officials said that the "false positive" rate was under 1 percent. A field engineer familiar with the machine said it could be confused by cologne, hairspray or hand cream, but a company official said it could be set to discriminate between those and explosives.

Beside the portal monitor was a baggage scanner, built by L-3 Communications. It is of a simpler design than the ones used in airports but should detect explosives, officials said. They are not looking for airport contraband like knives and boxcutters. There are no metal detectors.

Wednesday, May 5, 2004

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