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Local rail transportation thrives despite warning to be cautious

(The following article by Sara Cardine was posted on the Lodi News-Sentinel website on May 25.)

LODI, Calif. -- Despite a recent directive from the Department of Homeland Security advising rail employees to be on the lookout for any suspicious activity, the San Joaquin Office of Emergency Services and train travelers do not seem alarmed about the dangers of rail transportation.

"I've taken the train a lot," said former Lodi resident Pete Picasso, who frequently rides between Lodi and Hanford with his 4-year-old daughter Alexis.

"This is how I always travel to see my parents."

In the wake of the DHS directive and the March 11 train bombing in Madrid, Spain, trains are again being reviewed as possible targets of terrorist attacks.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-California, appeared at an Amtrak station in Sacramento on Sunday to bolster citizen support for two acts currently being considered at the federal level.

The Rail Transportation Security Act of 2004 would authorize $63.5 million for security upgrades on Amtrak passenger trains. In addition to passenger safety precautions, another $350 million would be available to boost security on freight lines.

The Public Transportation Terrorism Act of 2004 would provide as much as $1.2 billion dollars over a three-year period to improve security on local transit systems.

The act would provide for live or simulated drills, public awareness campaigns and security officer overtime pay, a press release issued by Boxer's office said.

"I don't know why she's jumping on this thing like she is," said Picasso, a member of the Young Republican Party. "It's a fun way to travel."

While the issue of Boxer's proposals is still being debated, the Transportation Security Administration under the Department of Homeland Security is working in cooperation with Amtrak and the U.S. Department of Transportation, as part of a 30-day test program to screen train and public transit passengers and their carry-on items for explosives.

Though Boxer's appearance in Sacramento sparked discussion in California on rail safety, Ron Baldwin, director of the Office of Emergency Services in San Joaquin County, said his office has received no directive on any potential threat to rail use in this area.

"We haven't seen anything that indicates a special concern, or a window of concern, that says we should look out for trains," Baldwin said.

While there appears to be no specific threat to rail passengers, freight lines such as Union Pacific have responded to the possibility of threats to rail transportation.

"The individual railroads have taken proactive security measures since Sept. 11," said John Bromley, public information officer for Union Pacific.

"We have an ongoing training program to remind employees to report anything suspicious that they might see."

Bromley said he could not divulge the details of the measures being taken by Union Pacific, but added that the company has been commended by various agencies as leaders in the industry in terms of security.

Sarah Swain, a spokeswoman for Amtrak, said the railroad company was still putting into place post-Sept. 11 measures, but was also adding new ones under a federal mandate from the Transportation Security Administration.

"We are working closely with TSA on the measures to make sure that they are implemented to their satisfaction," Swain said, adding precautions travelers could take to ensure safety.

"If a person were on a train and they were suspicious of something, they could report it to the conductor on board," she said. "If passengers took a trip and thought of something after the fact, they could call our customer line."

In the meantime, local emergency responders don't feel the need to spread the message to the public that there is a danger to rail travel, and stress that there are more critical local concerns that deserve their attention.

"We need to keep working on our general response capability, and we're doing that," Baldwin said.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

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