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Security tightened on rail systems

(The following story by Fred Bayles appeared on the USA Today website on May 23.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The 10 million commuters a day who use the nation's subway and rail systems may notice increased security today as new federal mandates go into effect.

The measures include the use of bomb-sniffing dogs, the removal of trash receptacles and announcements urging greater awareness of unattended packages or bags.

Less noticeable will be more coordination between local and federal security officials.

"Travelers may not see any difference, but they should feel a greater confidence that there are minimum security standards in place," says Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security.

Hutchinson announced the new security mandates Thursday. They are a response to the bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191 people in March.

Among the new steps that will be required of 14 subway systems, 27 light-rail operations and scores of commuter rail networks around the country:

-- Training to make staff more aware of possible terrorism. Transit systems will also step up programs asking the public to watch for suspicious activity.

-- More staff on duty during heightened security alerts.

-- Checks of rail cars for unattended packages, random stops to check passenger identification and the use of bomb-sniffing dogs. Transit systems also will have to remove trash cans or replace them with hardened receptacles that can contain a bomb blast.

-- The designation of security coordinators to work with the Homeland Security Department and submit security plans for federal review.

Local officials have a mixed reaction to the new rules.

The federal mandates will increase personnel costs for cash-strapped operations. And transit systems will have to deal with a new level of federal bureaucracy with no immediate sign of additional federal funding.

Various federal programs have earmarked about $115 million for transit security since the Madrid bombings. But that figure is small compared with $1.7 billion spent by the transit industry itself and the $11 billion in various federal programs that has been earmarked for commercial airline security since the Sept. 11 attacks.

"No one disagrees with the direction of the directives," says Kathryn Waters, vice president for commuter rail at Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

"These are good basic security measures," she says. "We'd like to do more if we had the money."

Some travelers have already had a taste of heightened security.

One of Amtrak's Acela Express high-speed trains from Boston to Washington made an unscheduled stop outside Baltimore late Thursday as Amtrak personnel matched luggage in closets and overhead racks with passengers.

After an hour, the train continued on its way. Amtrak officials said that train, and another Washington-bound Acela Express, were stopped and searched after Baltimore police received an anonymous threat.

"You got a few people rolling their eyes, they way you would with any delay," says Acela passenger Ray Boshara, 42, who works at a Washington think tank. "I welcomed it.

"In these times, we can't dismiss threats."

Monday, May 24, 2004

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