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Members of Congress debate security of nation's railways

(The following report by Dan Robinson appeared on the Voice of America website on May 6.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Members of Congress have been asking more questions about government steps to strengthen security on the nation's railways. A congressional hearing Wednesday followed announcement by the Department of Homeland Security of a test program at a rail station outside of Washington aimed at scanning passengers for explosives.

With the summer vacation period about to begin and national political conventions in East coast cities in July and August, lawmakers are uncomfortable with what many see as a lack of major progress on rail security.

The U.S. passenger rail system remains largely "open," without security measures seen at the nation's airports.

Ernest Frazier is chief of police and security for AMTRAK, the nation's largest passenger rail company. "Because of advantages such as easy access, convenient location, and inter-modal connection, rail and mass transit systems are completely different from the structure and organization of the airline transportation and airport industry," he noted. "As a result, the security framework that works ideally in the airport setting is not transferable to rail station systems."

Although this is understood by members of Congress, the reality has many extremely worried.

In a hearing of the House subcommittee on railroads, Washington, D.C. delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said she is "astonished" more has not been done. "There is no overall sense from the federal government of how to run a safe and secure railway," she said.

Just a day before, Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security spoke at a Maryland train station where a limited "test" program to assess methods of screening passengers for explosives is underway.

"If we had particular terrorist intelligence, that they were targeting a particular subway station, or particular area… but it might be over two months, you don't want to close it down," he said. "You want to keep it running. Our objective is to keep the transit systems working for the passengers in a safe environment."

For lawmakers representing cities heavily reliant on railroads, the fact that such a test program has only just begun and will not be widely "deployed," is upsetting.

Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch is from Boston, the site of the Democratic Party convention at the end of July. "I just don't want people to expect that we're going to use the same response to September 11 in this case, with regard to rail security," he said. "After September 11, rightly or wrongly, we were able to say we never saw it coming. In this situation, we have seen it, we have seen what is coming. And we can either choose to respond to it and develop a safe system of passenger and cargo rail in this country, or we can ignore it and suffer the consequences."

Chet Lunner, of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA) said that the government is aware of potential terrorist threats, but emphasized that regional rail and transit authorities were acting to "harden" security even before the bombings in Madrid. "The industry working in conjunction with us has done quite a bit already so what we are in the process of doing is finding out, after that is done, where are the gaps that remain," he said.

However, Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat, was not persuaded the government is doing enough. "I haven't heard anything in closed door, private, secret or public, that gives me the assurance that rail safety is being taken care of," she noted. "If I was going to give the [Bush] administration a grade, it would be ‘D plus’ or ‘D minus,’ lucky not ‘F.’"

After the terrorist attacks in Spain, officials from some key U.S. transportation systems went to Madrid to consult with authorities there.

Jack Dermody, president of the Long Island Railroad, describes the measures taken on that system, which is closely linked to New York City. "In analyzing points of vulnerability we have placed special emphasis on critically-important locations, high-value targets, where there is the most potential loss of life, serious economic impacts to the region or high costs for recovery or replacement or a large degree of environmental damage possible," he said.

Not all hearings on rail transportation security have taken place in public. Some have been closed to prevent sensitive information regarding the nation's rail system from falling into the hands of known or potential terrorists.

Thursday, May 6, 2004

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