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Railroad security shortchanged, Engel says

(The following story by Greg Clary appeared on the Journal News website on June 22.)

SUFFERN, N.Y. -- The security of the nation's rail systems is being shortchanged by federal officials so concerned about air safety that they don't give ground transportation a high enough priority, Rep. Eliot Engel, D-Bronx, charged yesterday.

Engel stood at the Suffern train station surrounded by local elected and emergency officials, noting that one in three terrorist attacks worldwide since 1997 has involved a transit system, yet the Bush administration expects to spend 90 percent of its anti-terrorism budget on air traffic.

"I'm very frightened over the lack of security on rail lines across this country, both passenger and freight," said Engel, who represents parts of Rockland and Westchester. "We've only scratched the surface when it comes to protecting our railroads."

Engel chose yesterday to air his opinions because he was concerned about the amount of anti-terrorism money for transit systems included in a spending package Congress passed early Friday morning.

Engel said the $33 billion budget approved for homeland security wasn't large enough, and Bush's tax cuts kept such spending lower because it was more difficult to approve money when the country was facing record budget deficits.

New York is receiving less in federal security money than it needs, given its population density, network of mass transit and high-profile position worldwide, Engel said.

"We must train the rail and mass-transit workers on proper emergency procedures," Engel said. "We must train our police and fire and EMS personnel how to deal with the potential of mass casualties from a bombing or chemical release."

Rail officials yesterday disputed the idea that their railroads weren't well-enough protected, and a federal security spokeswoman pointed out that the New York metropolitan area, including the northern suburbs, had received more than $400 million since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Valerie Smith, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Office for Domestic Preparedness, said that a new program designed to funnel more money to urban areas like New York was likely to get a larger share of next year's budget.

Smith said nearly $3 billion in state and urban grants had been rebalanced for the coming fiscal year. Instead of state programs' getting 75 percent of funding and urban programs' getting 25 percent, the money would be almost evenly split.

"We recognize that urban areas do have greater security needs," Smith said. "And overall, in the past three fiscal years since Sept. 11, the federal government has spent $13.1 billion in terrorism preparedness, compared to $1.2 billion for the three fiscal years before then."

Tom White of the Association of American Railroads said the industry had spent hundreds of millions of dollars in private capital since the attacks to bolster everything from camera surveillance equipment to dispatching systems.

"After 9/11, we hired outside security experts to assess our vulnerabilities and developed strategies to protect those vulnerabilities," White said. "Now, there's more restricted access, more surveillance, more computer ability for tracking trains."

Dana Denise, who lives next to CSX Transportation's freight lines in Congers, said she still worried about the potential for a terrorist attack on trains.

"This was brought up last year at a PTA meeting," Denise said. "People were talking about what it would take for one of these animals to put something on a cargo train. So many people are consumed with Indian Point and the airplanes, I don't think the government has touched on rail security so much."

Engel said his next step would be to meet with rail operators about their specific security needs.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

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