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Small rail line to be focus of security test

(The following article by Alison Leigh Cowan was posted on the New York Times website on July 15.)

NEW HAVEN, Conn. -- About 1,200 rail passengers a day on Connecticut's southeastern shore will be expected to have their bags X-rayed and their tickets swiped in a month-long test of new technology designed to fortify mass transit systems against terrorism.

The test, which will begin with the Monday morning rush, is being done by the federal Department of Homeland Security. It is the third and final set of trials that the department has conducted since the deadly bombing of passenger trains in Madrid in March.

Shore Line East commuter trains in Connecticut were chosen for the third round of testing precisely because their relatively low number of daily riders could withstand the process without major delays.

"You don't want to do the test in the most difficult environment," said Asa Hutchinson, under secretary for border and transportation security at the department. This way, he said, "we can test without impeding the flow and speed of travel."

Shore Line East trains make eight stops from Union Station here in New Haven to Old Saybrook. Stephen Korta, commissioner of Connecticut's Department of Transportation, said the trains on that line carry about 1,200 passengers a day, each one picking up roughly 25 to 30 people per stop.

Passengers in and around Union Station on Thursday said they were supportive of the test. "I just believe in the safety of the people and whatever it takes," said Melanie Scelza, of Berlin, Conn., who was dragging a piece of wheeled luggage behind her.

In the first phase of testing in May, the Department of Homeland Security required passengers at a suburban train station in Maryland to pass through a scanner before boarding their trains. The scanner sniffed the air around them for traces of explosives. Carry-on baggage was also subjected to X-ray testing for explosives.

A second round of tests was conducted in June at Union Station in Washington. It focused on checked luggage and cargo. Results of that test have not yet been made public, but Mr. Hutchinson said that neither test caused any drop in ridership.

The Connecticut scrutiny will differ in one important respect. It will happen after passengers board their trains, with an eye to keeping the trains and their passengers on schedule.

Passengers will use one specially outfitted rail car to board their trains. Bags will be X-rayed by a large machine that is looking for images of known explosives.

Passengers will then be asked to hand a gloved attendant their tickets. The attendant will rub each ticket on a pad that can be read in a few seconds by a microwave-size machine that costs upward of $40,000. The machine can detect trace amounts of explosives on a document that has been touched by someone who has handled them.

Anyone who generates a positive reading from the ticket-reader or the X-ray machine will have to proceed to another, similarly priced machine that senses explosives using a different technology. There, an attendant will swab and inspect the luggage by hand and question the passenger to see if there might be an innocent explanation for the positive reading. Law enforcement officers will step in if someone is deemed a threat, and could stop the train if necessary.

Representatives of the devices' manufacturers said that it was highly unlikely that a passenger posing no risk would generate false positives from both technologies.

The American Public Transportation Association estimates 32 million trips take place a day on mass transit, more than 16 times the number of domestic trips by air.

Given the huge investment and possible inconvenience, Mr. Hutchinson said there were no plans to equip the entire mass transit system with the new technologies, only to learn what might be deployed if specific threats were made.

"Clearly, it's not something you do lightly," said Mr. Hutchinson.

Friday, July 16, 2004

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