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Opinion: U.S. rail-system security is a concern for some

(The following column by Chip Jones was posted on the Richmond Times-Dispatch website on November 8.)

RICHMOND, Va. -- Most scrutiny about travel security falls on the airlines. That's understandable, considering the hijackings that were key to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

But after March's train bombings in Madrid, Spain, which killed nearly 200 people and wounded 1,400 more, some travelers wonder about the state of rail security in the United States.

Mary Lynn Taylor, associate director of admission at Collegiate School in Richmond, described a trip on Amtrak to attend a conference in Philadelphia early last month.

"I was astounded by the lack of security I witnessed," she said in an e-mail. "The last thing I ever want to do is to give 'the bad guys' any ideas, but I couldn't help but think what an open target our rail system provides."

The tickets of her group of administrators weren't checked until they were on board and the train was moving.

"No one ever checked the suitcase that I carried on board, or my pocketbook, or my briefcase," Taylor said. "It was quite an unsettling experience."

Amtrak's chief spokesman, Cliff Black, said the railroad shares her concern. But Amtrak has been taking steps to upgrade security, he said.

Black listed these steps Amtrak has taken, many in recent days:
# greater police presence on trains;
# more police at Washington's Union Station and New York's Penn Station;
# the use of bomb-sniffing dogs; and
# alerting employees of the importance of serving as the railroad's "eyes and ears" to detect security threats.

The Transportation Security Administration worked with Amtrak over the summer, seeking new ways to scan baggage and passengers for explosives.

Last Monday marked the start of Amtrak's new effort to improve on-board security, including random checks of photo identifications.

Black acknowledged the challenge of providing security on trains that, in many cases, connect with other ground transportation such as subways and commuter rails.

Trains are far different from airplanes, he noted.

"They are essentially a public assembly place that moves. You have to use caution in the security approaches you take so you balance the security with feasibility and the free flow of commerce."

Monday, November 8, 2004

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