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Security directive issued for mass transit

(The following report by Peter Whoriskey appeared on the Washington Post website on May 21.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Department of Homeland Security issued its first anti-terror directive for the nation's commuter rail and subway systems Thursday, calling for wide-ranging precautions dealing with checks of unattended bags, bombproof trash receptacles and the use of explosive-sniffing dogs.

The regulations are to go into effect on Sunday, but operators said they hadn't been issued copies of the requirements. Some in the industry questioned whether the transit systems have enough money to fully comply.

"Millions of Americans travel by rail every day, and recent world events highlight the need to ensure they are kept safe from acts of terror," said Asa Hutchinson, the Department of Homeland Security's undersecretary for border and transportation security. "These protective measures, along with others already in place, advance our mission to ensure rail passengers are protected."

Asked how rail operators could come into compliance by Sunday if they had not yet been given a copy of the regulations, Hutchinson said regulators would "provide flexibility when necessary."

Fears for the nation's rail systems rose after Sept. 11, 2001, and again after the Madrid train bombings in March.

The announcement of new rules prompted pleas for more money from rail operators, who say that although airlines have received billions in direct assistance for anti-terror measures, the country's railway systems have been given relatively little.

"We simply don't have the additional funding to address some of these issues," said Greg Hull, director of operations safety and security for the American Public Transportation Association. "We are fully committed to ensuring security. But as these unfunded mandates are put upon the industry, it certainly raises the question of what happens when systems are unable to come into compliance."

He said that although rail operators have received two federal grants for $115 million, aviation interests have garnered $11 billion.

In response to the financial questions, Hutchinson noted that state and local governments, which subsidize rail operations, have received billions in homeland security funding.

Moreover, he said that the train regulations, which are less than 10 pages in length, are largely a collection of best practices.

"The transit authorities are largely in compliance," he said. "As we continue to monitor these measures . . . we're certainly willing to make sure that this is in the line of priorities for funding."

Exactly what the new regulations call for was unknown Thursday, so estimating the cost of compliance is impossible, rail operators said.

Described as "law enforcement sensitive," the regulations will not be made public.

The press release briefly mentions these topics: that rail operators must designate coordinators for communicating with the Transportation Security Administration; that passengers and employees will be asked to report unattended property and suspicious behavior and that similar inspections will be conducted; that in certain locations, trash receptacles must be bomb-resistant or made of clear plastic; that canine explosive detection teams may be used; and that rail operators will ensure that security is at "appropriate levels consistent with the DHS established threat level."

A spokesman for Amtrak, Dan Stessel, said the company would not comment on the regulations until it has reviewed them.

Asked whether it would be in compliance by Sunday, he said, "Until we get clarification on what is meant (in the regulations), I can't answer that."

He noted, however, that there are already bomb-resistant trash cans at Union Station in Washington and that the company uses canine patrols.

Friday, May 21, 2004

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