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US rail security lags, House panel told

(The following article by Charlie Savage was posted on the Boston Globe website on May 6.)

WASHINGTON -- The Department of Homeland Security has given 24 officials the job of improving national railway security and, nearly three years after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, they are still working on an initial assessment of threats to the rail system, a House panel was told yesterday.

Moreover, while the government has spent some $11 billion to improve aviation security since the attacks, it has spent about $100 million on rail security.

"We think you need some help," said Jack Quinn, Republican of New York, House transportation and infrastructure-railroads subcommittee chairman. "If we can fund airports this way, we need to be cheerleading in this subcommittee to fund the railroads."

Despite bipartisan entreaties for more rail security funds in the wake of terrorist train bombings in Madrid and Moscow, Chet Lunner, assistant administrator of the Transportation Security Administration's Office of Maritime and Land Security, said that the Department of Homeland Security must first finish assessing where the risks are.

"It would be inappropriate to throw money at a problem we haven't defined in a particular way," Lunner said.

Lunner also said that while the Transportation Security Administration has 24 officials assigned to rail security and all are based in Washington, they can "leverage" their impact by working with security officials at other agencies, such as the Federal Railroad Administration.

But Allan Rutter, administrator of the Federal Railroad Administration, said his office had between "three and five people dedicated solely to rail security."

Replied Quinn: "Three to five people tells me we need more people on the job out at the sites to keep people safe."

Ernest Frazier, chief of Amtrak's 342-officer police force, said that his department has added 12 bomb-sniffing dogs, worked on terrorism vulnerability assessments, bought respirators, and provided counterterrorism training to about 15 percent of its officers. But he said the Amtrak police need more resources.

"Frankly, we don't have enough money to do it as quickly as we would like," he said. "We need to do it faster."

Members offered praise for a Transportation Security Administration pilot program started this week at a commuter rail stop in New Carrollton, Md., in which passengers and their bags are screened for explosives. Still, even that program drew some criticism.

"Three years after 9/11, we're basically at the pilot-program point, apparently," said Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat of the District of Columbia who is a nonvoting delegate. "There is no overall sense from the federal government of how to run a safe and secure railway."

Representative Stephen F. Lynch, Democrat of Massachusetts, said he has visited Boston's South Station and talked to employees of Amtrak, commuter rail, and the MBTA who told him they don't know what they are supposed to do in case of a terrorist attack.

Lynch urged Lunner to push his agency into making it a greater priority to coordinate with rail systems to create uniform terrorism-prevention and response-plan standards -- and to ask for more resources, if necessary, to get the job done.

"The people required to carry out security measures tell me they don't have a plan," Lynch said. "We can't have a patchwork of plans that are developing in the absence of leadership from Washington. We need a national plan -- one known by the rail employees who are going to implement it."

He also asked Ed Hamberger, Association of American Railroads president, whether the industry could provide advance notification to local emergency responders when a shipment of hazardous materials is scheduled to come through a densely populated area.

Hamberger said railroads do have a "general discussion" with communities about the types of cargo that will come through but do not give them notification of each specific train, because "it generally ends up being so much paperwork that people don't pay attention to it."

Hamberger also touted the rail industry's voluntary security measures and argued against creating new regulations, such as forcing companies to reroute freight trains carrying hazardous materials around major cities, even though the subcommittee did not invite a witness to testify in favor of such proposals.

"Railroads are opposed to legislation that would grant state and local governments the ability to restrict rail movements of hazardous materials," he said. "Because rail transportation is interstate in nature, it requires a uniform set of standards that apply nationwide. . . . Rerouting would lead to an increase of miles traveled, increasing switching and handling of cars, thereby increasing public exposure, and [it would] only transfer that exposure to other communities."

Rutter lent his support to the industry on that issue.

"While it might be tempting to simply reroute around cities," Rutter said, that would "jeopardize high-wage jobs" in cities with factories that use chemicals and could lead to "increased transit time and shipping costs."

Thursday, May 6, 2004

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