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Opinion: In times of terror threats, watchful rail riders add to security

(The following column by Steve Dunham appeared on the Free Lance-Star website on May 30.)

FREDERICSBURG, Va. -- What’s to stop terrorists from bombing commuter trains in Washington, as they did in Madrid, Spain, on March 11? Tighter security plus watchful employees, passengers and railfans.

On May 23, the Department of Homeland Security directed U.S. passenger railroads to use dogs to detect bombs in baggage, in terminals and on trains, and to enlist the help of passengers and employees in spotting suspicious behavior or unattended property.

This helpful advice from the federal government ignores the fact that passenger-carrying lines have been doing just that for a long time.

Since Sept. 11, 2001, rail systems across America have been encouraging passengers to keep their eyes open for anything suspicious, and most passenger railroads started boosting security as long ago as 1995, when terrorists used sarin gas on the Tokyo subway. New York City has been stepping up transit security since the 1993 World Trade Center bombing.

Virginia Railway Express has been an industry leader in implementing security measures such as guards, disaster drills and evacuation plans. Dave Snyder, VRE's superintendent of railroad operations, safety and security, has encouraged passengers to be on the lookout for anything suspicious.

The thousands of eyes and ears provided by passengers are going to be crucial to preventing a Madrid-style attack in the United States. A rail system, unlike an airline, has so many points of access that security measures in themselves are not nearly enough.

For proof, look at the Transportation Security Administration's new pilot program to screen rail passengers. Beginning May 4, Amtrak and Maryland Rail Commuter passengers have been passing an explosives detector before boarding trains at one station (New Carrollton, Md.) and during rush hours only. Passengers on the Washington Metro, which shares the station, aren't being screened at all. You don't need a criminal mind to spot a few holes in that security measure.

However, just as Americans on an airplane will never again sit quietly through a hijacking, anyone leaving a suitcase or backpack behind on a train is going to get instant attention, and that's where alert passengers may be able to thwart an attack.

However, two rail systems have hit the headlines in the past two weeks over misguided efforts to prevent photography. New Jersey Transit, which was building canine bomb-detection teams before the Department of Homeland Security started issuing directives in that regard, now wants to forbid anyone from taking pictures of its property without a permit, and the New York City Transit Authority has decided to require permits for photography on the subways.

Civil liberties advocates were quick to pounce on the restrictions, and I agree. I've taken plenty of train pictures for columns and articles and just for fun. I see no legal basis for banning photography on public property. On transit authority property, I can see the rationale for issuing permits; when I lived in Boston I had a photographer's permit for the transit system.

But there's another side to this: Discouraging photography is counterproductive to security. Common sense says that cameras will discourage crime, including terrorism. But in general, some railroads and even local police, particularly in the Northeast, have been discouraging train buffs from watching trains or taking pictures. I'm a casual, now-and-then train watcher, but there are people who spend hours every weekend watching trains, often carrying cameras, notebooks, maybe binoculars, and they notice the slightest thing out of the ordinary. If I were responsible for security on a railroad, which has such extensive property and so many vulnerable points that it is impossible to patrol, I wouldn't be discouraging these people.

To its credit, I have never heard of VRE discouraging railfans who practice safety, who stay clear of tracks, trains and private property. I often see train watchers at the Alexandria station in the evening, and a local rail history group sometimes holds meetings right on the platform.

If someone places a suitcase on the platform and leaves the station, or parks a bomb-laden vehicle under a bridge, or attempts some kind of sabotage, chances are these people will be the first to notice. I hope they are carrying cameras.

(Steve Dunham of Spotsylvania County, chairs the board of directors of the Virginia Association of Railway Patrons. Write him c/o Commuter Crossroads, The Free Lance-Star, 616 Amelia St., Fredericksburg, Va. 22401. Or e-mail literalman@aol.com.)

Tuesday, June 1, 2004

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