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Terror fears tinge summer travel

(The following article by Mimi Hall was posted on the USA Today website on July 8.)

WASHINGTON -- Margi Koors was excited when she boarded an Amtrak train in Chicago recently for an 18-hour overnight trip that would land her in the heart of the nation's capital around noon the next day. But Koors' train didn't pull into Washington, D.C., in time for lunch. Or dinner. Or even the 11 o'clock news.

Instead, it sat on the tracks 140 miles from the city for nearly 12 hours while FBI agents, police and bomb-sniffing dogs combed every inch of it — all because a passenger had reported that two Middle Eastern men sitting nearby were acting suspiciously.

The incident was another in a series of terrorist warnings, emergency drills and false alarms affecting the lives of more Americans than at any time since the Sept. 11 attacks. That same week, TV viewers nationwide saw thousands of terrified workers and tourists running from the U.S. Capitol after erroneous reports that an incoming plane was minutes away from striking.

"I now have to live my life in fear, and I don't like it one bit," says Koors, 52, of St. Louis.

Living with fear, to use a post-Sept. 11 cliché, is the "new normal." Even so, an improving economy is fueling an increase in the number of Americans traveling this summer, and they're hitting the road at a tense time. U.S. officials say al-Qaeda may be ready to launch another major attack; the summer months provide enticing targets, including national political conventions in Boston and New York City. As a result, more Americans than ever are likely to feel the effects of the terrorist threat and stepped-up security in ways big and small.

Looking for trouble

oAt airports, police are reporting longer lines at security checkpoints and more reports of suspicious behavior. Mark Hatfield of the Transportation Security Administration says an airport terminal is evacuated or a security checkpoint temporarily closed at least once a day somewhere in the country.

"I think Madrid was a wake-up call for those who might have slipped into some kind of complacency," says Dennis Rosebrough, spokesman for the Indianapolis International Airport, about the March 11 train bombings in Spain that killed 191. He says police are called to check an unattended bag about once a week at his airport. In early June, a concourse was evacuated for about 90 minutes after someone found a knife on a Southwest Airlines plane.

At Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, reports of unattended packages and suspicious behavior are up about 3% over this time last year, says spokesman Ken Capps. "We consider our passengers our best eyes and ears and our best intelligence," he says.

In Philadelphia, police say security checkpoint lines have gotten longer over the past month because more people are flying. They've stepped up patrols with bomb-sniffing dogs. "We have incidents every day," says police Lt. Frederick Corsino.

oAt train stations, a spike in reports about suspicious behavior is leading to delays and a bigger police presence. Amtrak officials say calls to their police officers doubled after Sept. 11 and have increased even more since the Madrid train bombings. Train passengers traveling along the East Coast, in particular, will run into very tight security this summer because of concerns about terrorist attacks in conjunction with the conventions in July and August.

"There seems to be a measurable increase in people's awareness of what's going on around them," Hatfield says. Passengers realize that "every one of those bombs that blew up in Madrid was an unattended bag moments before it blew up."

oIn subway systems, police teams and bomb-sniffing dogs have become a constant presence since Madrid. In Boston, police this month will start asking some passengers for identification and permission to search their bags.

oOn buses, passengers will see better communications equipment and new shields to protect drivers from passengers. Greyhound, which carried 22 million people in 2003, is installing shields to protect drivers from passengers and panic buttons that connect drivers to emergency 911 dispatchers. Passengers on a growing number of routes will have to be checked by an officer using a metal-detecting wand before boarding a bus.

oOn ferries— even in places such as Juneau, Alaska, and Martha's Vineyard, Mass. — officials will inspect more cars and ask for identification. "The threat is real," says Jerome Hauer, one of the nation's top experts on bioterrorism and preparedness. "It is going to be very annoying for some people."

High anxiety

East Coast residents feel the effects of the threat and tightened security more than most. But there are several reasons why more people are encountering tighter security this summer:

oOfficials say the threat may be greater than at any time since 2001. Attorney General John Ashcroft, in a televised pre-Memorial Day warning to the nation, said al-Qaeda's plans for another attack were 90% complete. The terrorist group, he said, is preparing to "hit the United States hard."

oThis summer offers a series of high-profile targets. Officials remain concerned about the Democratic National Convention this month in Boston and the Republican National Convention in August in New York City. They also worry about flights to and from the Olympics in Greece in August. And they are nervous about Election Day in November, particularly since the Madrid bombings appear to have been designed to influence Spain's elections.

oMore people are expected to travel this summer than ever before. The Travel Industry of America predicts that leisure travel will be up 3.2% over 2003 because of the improved economy.

This summer offers a series of high-profile targets. Officials remain concerned about the Democratic National Convention this month in Boston and the Republican National Convention in August in New York City. They also worry about flights to and from the Olympics in Greece in August. And they are nervous about Election Day in November, particularly since the Madrid bombings appear to have been designed to influence Spain's elections.

More people are expected to travel this summer than ever before. The Travel Industry of America predicts that leisure travel will be up 3.2% over 2003 because of the improved economy.

Thursday, July 8, 2004

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