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Gov't plans new rail security experiments

(The Associated Press circulated the following article on June 3.)

WASHINGTON -- The government plans two new experiments to determine the feasibility of security checks for rail passengers and their bags.

Beginning next week, the Transportation Security Administration will screen checked baggage that goes onto the five long-distance Amtrak trains that depart Washington's Union Station every weekday. Screeners will use some combination of X-ray machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and handheld wands that can sense minute traces of explosives.

Next month, the TSA will screen passengers as they board trains. Plans call for people to enter through the rear car, where they'll be checked for explosives before moving forward to their seats. It's expected screeners will use an X-ray machine for carry-on baggage and a portal that ``sniffs'' the air around a person for explosive residue. It isn't yet clear which trains will be selected for the passenger test.

Easy access to trains and train platforms make them vulnerable to terrorist attacks. The FBI and the Homeland Security Department have warned that terrorists might strike trains and buses in major U.S. cities using bombs concealed in bags or luggage.

The TSA's efforts to improve rail safety were given a push by the March 11 railway bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people and injured thousands.

Last month the agency completed the first phase of its experiment. For a month, passengers at a suburban Maryland station went through airport-style screenings. The TSA is analyzing the results, said Homeland Security Department spokesman Dennis Murphy.

James Carafano, a homeland security expert with the conservative think tank Heritage Foundation, said the TSA is taking a responsible approach to rail security.

``They've looked to pilot programs to do a common-sense test, which is infinitely better than rolling something out and having it be wrong or having enormous unintended consequences,'' Carafano said.

Though it's unlikely that TSA would ever try to screen all passengers and all bags on all railroads -- let alone transit systems -- the agency could later use the techniques it's testing when there's a specific threat or for special events, Carafano said.

``It's another tool in the kit bag for the day the terrorists do something you didn't anticipate,'' he said.

Some in Congress believe the TSA isn't doing enough to secure railways. In April, a Senate committee approved spending more than $1 billion to protect railroads and mass transit systems from terrorist attacks.

Two weeks ago, the Homeland Security Department ordered railway operators to designate security coordinators, remove trash cans in some places, conduct inspections and ask passengers and employees to report unattended property or suspicious behavior.

Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, said in a speech on Wednesday the order was designed to ``cover their bureaucratic backsides'' because it reflected actions already taken.

Friday, June 4, 2004

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