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Security on the rails

(The following story by Glen Leyden appeared on The Star website on June 3.)

CHICAGO -- The bulk of attention and money paid to beefing up security following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks has gone to the airline industry.

Now, legislators and federal investigators say more attention should be paid to railroads, which were largely ignored during the efforts to increase security after Sept. 11.

Several efforts in Washington to secure more money for railroad security took greater significance following the Madrid terrorist attack in March that killed 191 people and injured 1,800 others when a series of near-simultaneous explosions detonated by remote control ripped through four commuter trains.

A May directive from the federal Homeland Security Department asks passenger rail operators to use more bomb-sniffing dogs, remove station trash cans and improve communication with the Transportation Security Administration.

The TSA is currently testing a program to screen Amtrak passengers for bombs.

There are no plans to screen Metra passengers, Metra spokesman Tom Miller said.

"Admittedly, there is a delicate balance between Metra's open system ... and taking the necessary steps to ensure the safety of the public," he said.

Metra has increased the number of police officers patrolling their stations and used some bomb-sniffing dogs, Miller said.

More attention is being paid to freight trains, too.

"There are a lot of dangerous chemicals carried by railroads and to have one of them derail in your town would be disastrous," Steger Police Chief Richard Stultz said.

Stultz attended an FBI workshop in April highlighting things local law enforcement can do to monitor potential terrorist threats.

"They gave us some examples of things to watch out for: if you have an airport in town or power plant, for example. Just some ideas of places that might be targeted," he said.

FBI spokeswoman Cynthia Yates said there were no new directives from her department regarding railroads specifically, but local law enforcement is "urged to remain on heightened alert following last week's announcement."

Last week, the Bush administration said it had credible information suggesting Al Qaeda was planning an attack this summer. No specifics, including places, times or methods, were given.

"It's something we worry about," South Holland Police Chief Warren Millsaps said.

Millsaps said he talks frequently with some of the major railroad companies.

"They're stretched pretty thin themselves," he said. "They have a lot of line to cover."

His own officers are reminded to keep an eye on the railroads.

"They are constantly reminded, encouraged and instructed to pay extra attention to those areas," Millsaps said.

Local law enforcement agencies get little direction from the national level, Dolton Police Chief Ronald Burge said.

"What I know is what I read or see on TV," he said. "There is no direct pipeline."

Dolton is a "hub of railroad transportation" prompting Burge's department to increase security around the rail lines, he said.

While he would not discuss specific plans, Burge said his department is using video surveillance to keep a closer watch on the railroads and chemical plant in Dolton.

Railroad operators increased security soon after Sept. 11, said John Bromley, spokesman for Union Pacific Railroad, which runs through 23 states and is a major carrier of chemicals.

Besides working closely with federal investigators, Union Pacific Railroad "encourages (their) employees to report any suspicious activities as they go along their business."

That's about the only advice anyone has for commuters and residents.

"Just watch for suspicious activity," Stultz said.

With security a top issue in the upcoming presidential election, Democratic hopeful John Kerry is criticizing President Bush for not doing enough to protect railroads.

"Why is it that our trains and other forms of transportation don't have the protection that we know would make us safer?" Kerry asked last week in Seattle.

Legislators want more money designated to the railroad industry. A Senate committee approved a bill designating $3.2 billion for railroad and port security in April. Amtrak has received about $100 million to improve security.

More than $11 billion has been spent on aviation security since Sept. 11.

Thursday, June 3, 2004

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