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NJ Transit rules out screening of baggage

(The following article by Ken Serrano was posted on the New Brunswick Home News Tribune website on August 12.)

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. -- Rail commuters face enough stress without having to think about things like package bombs and the expected delays because of the upcoming Republican National Convention in New York City.

But long lines due to baggage screening is one problem they don't have to worry about.

Despite a call for screening at train stations by state Attorney General Peter C. Harvey at the end of June, NJ Transit has no plans for airport-style checks for rail travelers. The same goes for bus riders.

NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said yesterday that the sheer volume of passengers prevents such a system from working effectively. No rail system in the country has plans to roll out those measures, he said.

"It would be impossible to check or screen every passenger that comes on board whether it be trains, buses or light rail," Stessel said.

Instead, NJ Transit is relying on increased security measures such as canine units trained to detect explosives, more transit police officers and joint patrols with the New Jersey State Police to thwart terrorism, he said.

Roger Shatzkin, a spokesman for the Attorney General's Office and the state Office of Counter-Terrorism, said yesterday that baggage screening was one of several issues still being studied by a the Domestic Security Preparedness Task Force that Harvey chairs.

Technology to screen baggage for explosives is currently in use.

Harvey's remarks about rail safety at Middlesex County's Domestic Preparedness Summit on June 30 came in the midst of a pilot program conducted by the federal Transportation Security Administration to see whether screening for explosives was feasible.

Passengers getting off commuter trains yesterday evening in New Brunswick were split on the issue.

"The terrorists are determined and patient," said Caroline Romano, 23, of Somerset, an environmental engineer traveling back from Penn Station in New York. "They'd figure out a way to get around it."

Bob Skorupsky, 52, of New Brunswick, who works with HVAC systems for Mitsubishi and flies more than he travels by train, said he finds all the detection equipment intrusive.

"When you go through airports, you're basically undressing," he said. "There are risks with living."

Lilia Muolo, 51, a medical technician for the Cancer Institute of New Jersey, travels each day by rail between New Brunswick and Hamilton, where she lives.

"I myself would prefer screening at least when we have information indicating there's a threat," she said. "I'd feel a lot safer."

Chris Kozub, assistant director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University who develops safety and security training programs for the rail industry, said delays make airport-style baggage screening impractical.

"The system will come to a screeching halt," Kozub said.

Kozub said studies of mass transit in London and the Middle East show the best way to protect against terrorism is with "an intelligent and alert workforce."

The National Transit Institute prepared a video about identifying suspicious packages and passengers that was distributed two weeks ago to 3,700 NJ Transit workers.

The Transportation Security Administration began its pilot program in New Carrollton, Md., on May 4, screening 8,835 passengers and nearly 9,875 bags during the 22-day test. The average wait per passenger was 2 minutes, according to the administration.

Passengers walked through a chamber the size of a shower stall, where they were hit with puffs of air meant to dislodge any traces of explosives. A device samples and analyzes the air.

Carry-on baggage was X-rayed.

The administration claimed they received a 93 percent approval rating from customers.

But terminals like Penn Station in New York dwarf the New Carrollton station.

More passengers pass through Penn Station in New York City during a typical weekday morning commute than pass through O'Hare International Airport in Chicago in two days, Kozub said.

Passengers moving through the NJ Transit system daily number 200,000 traveling by rail, 495,000 by bus and 31,000 by light rail, Stessel said.

With the volume of people commuting through mass-transit systems in mind, the Transportation Security Administration said that baggage screening it is testing is not intended to be a permanent practice in train stations. It would be used for specific threats or special events, said Ann Davis, Northeast spokeswoman for the Transportation Security Administration.

The administration also conducted tests on checked baggage for Amtrak passengers at Union Station in Washington, D.C., and is continuing the third part of the pilot program -- screening passengers on a train in motion on Connecticut's Shoreline East commuter rail.

Davis had no estimate on when the administration will release its findings.

Thursday, August 12, 2004

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