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Trouble on the tracks?

(The following article was posted on Washington, D.C., television station NBC 4’s website on May 10.)

WASHINGTON -- Spectacular train crashes easily capture our attention, but hundreds of passenger and freight trains routinely rumble along through the Washington region.

The trains are part of the economy, and part of the national debate over security, terrorism and fears al-Qaida could do with trains what it did on Sept. 11, 2001, with planes.

"They didn't build those planes. They simply used them as weapons. They could do the same thing with rail cars," Jonathan Tucker said.

The focus of a current legal fight in Washington is on whether to reroute freight cars hauling toxic and explosive chemicals blocks from Congress.

But there is another potential danger -- sabotage or accidental derailing of passenger trains in the heart of the nation's capital. And there's one crucial spot.

News4's cameras captured a rarely seen view of a 100-year-old tunnel that snakes from the southern edge of Capitol Hill under First Street Northeast on into Union Station.

It's an important link. All southbound Amtrak trains go through the tunnel, as do commuter trains.

The tunnel passes under and near some of Washington's iconic Capitol Hill buildings, including the Supreme Court the Capitol itself. An explosion below could shake the center of government.

"I've hammered the railway administration for doing almost nothing post 9/11 for our tunnels to secure (both) passenger and freight," D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton said.

The tunnel has warning signs, but there's a sagging fence and no visible devices or guards to discourage or stop intruders intent on destruction.

"Particularly if you're talking tunnels in the District of Columbia. It's the federal government's responsibility and they've not lifted a finger," Norton said.

Amtrak, which is responsible for the tunnel, declined to discuss with News4 any security in place or planned.

News4's Tom Sherwood talked to several rail passengers who were only vaguely aware of the worry.

It's a busy route. As trains head north over the 14th Street bridge, symbols of our democracy loom within blocks.

In the heart of downtown federal Washington, there is a track split where freight trains with dangerous cargo are routed south over the Anacostia River.

Passenger trains, with thousands of riders each day, head into the narrow, 100-year-old tunnel, passing under the very Congress that has the ultimate say on how safe this trip should be.

"Nobody guards the tracks. There are only rudimentary safeguards," Norton said.

Wednesday, May 11, 2005

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