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Lawmakers fear railroads are 'soft target' for terror

(The following article by Tom Ramstack was posted on the Washington Times website on May 6.)

WASHINGTON -- Lawmakers yesterday questioned whether the federal government overlooked terrorism risks to passenger and freight railroads as it responded to the September 11 attacks.

"Our enemies seek a soft target," Rep. Jon Porter, Nevada Republican, said during a congressional hearing.

The House Transportation and Infrastructure railroads subcommittee is investigating ways to avert attacks such as the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 persons.

The lawmakers asked the Bush administration to deliver a written plan for responding to terrorist threats against railroads.

The hearing coincides with other federal government efforts to catch up on railroad security after spending $11 billion on aviation security.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) on Tuesday began a 30-day test at the New Carrollton train station to determine the feasibility of screening Amtrak and commuter rail passengers for bombs.

In addition, a Senate committee last month approved a bill that would spend $3.2 billion on railroad and port security.

Members of the Bush administration said yesterday their precautions against terrorist attacks on railroads focus largely on gathering intelligence reports and developing response strategies.

Chet Lunner, TSA assistant administrator, said the federal government should not concentrate security efforts too heavily on a single transportation mode.

"Without consistent application of reasonable and prudent security measures across modes, we risk creating weak links that may drive terrorism from one mode to another," he said.

Mr. Lunner was uncertain whether the security checkpoints being tested at the New Carrollton station would be practical when large numbers of commuters are trying to board a train.

"That's exactly the kind of question we're trying to answer," he said.

Allan Rutter, the departing head of the Federal Railroad Administration, said the railroad industry is developing a variety of terrorism risk precautions, including greater use of bomb-sniffing dogs, rail cars manufactured to withstand crashes and risk assessments of hazardous materials shipments.

However, he also suggested that Congress avoid heavy regulation of the railroad industry, saying a better option is "a balance between security and economic liberty."

Last year, the TSA opened a Transportation Security Operations Center to coordinate intelligence reports of threats with responses by law enforcement and the transportation industry, including railroads.

Since the September 11 attacks, Congress has spent about $115 million on mass-transit security.

In addition, Amtrak received about $100 million to harden its tunnels against bomb blasts. States and cities have the discretion to use some federal transportation funding for rail security but are not required to do so.

"I think it is time to switch our priorities," said Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, a Democrat who is the District's nonvoting member of Congress.

Thursday, May 6, 2004

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