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How safe are our railways?

(The following article by Bennet Roth was posted on the Houston Chronicle website on July 8.)

WASHINGTON -- Mass transit advocates said Thursday that they hope the London bombings will prod Congress to increase financial support for American rail security, which has been dwarfed by federal funding for aviation security.

"Congress is a human institution. We respond to events," said Jim Berard, spokesman for Rep. Jim Oberstar of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

Oberstar has been pushing Congress to spend more on rail security. But the House has failed to act on legislation approved by the Senate to pump substantially more money into rail-security programs.

Cuts in funding
This year, though, a Senate appropriations committee proposed reducing Transportation Security Administration grants for rail security from $150 million in 2005 to $100 million in fiscal 2006.

Transit officials say the tragedy in London should persuade the full Senate to restore the rail funding when it considers the Homeland Security appropriations bill next week.

"With public transportation once again a terrorist target, I again call on the Senate to step up to the plate next week and dramatically increase funding for (the) country's transit-security needs," said William Millar, the president of the American Public Transportation Association.

After terrorists hijacked commercial airplanes Sept. 11, 2001, and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the government has focused primarily on securing air travel.

Since then the federal government has spent $18.1 billion on aviation security compared with $250 million on rail security, according to the transportation association.

Testifying before a House railroad subcommittee in May 2004, Chet Lunner, TSA's assistant administrator for the Office of Maritime and Land Security, defended the funding gap.

"Obviously in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, aviation took a front seat in terms of timing and resources," he said.

'Myriad vulnerabilities'
Some federal officials have warned about the potential threat of a terrorist attack on the domestic rail system. In February 2003 testimony on terrorism before the Senate Intelligence Committee, FBI Director Robert Mueller said, "I worry, in particular, about the U.S. rail system's myriad vulnerabilities."

Congress has given increased attention to rail security since the March 2004 terrorist bombing of the rail station in Madrid. A bipartisan group of senators in May introduced a transportation-security measure that would fund $1.6 billion in rail security grants over three years.

Similar to legislation approved by the Senate last fall, it would require the TSA to assess the threats to railroads and make recommendations for improvement. It would provide grants to Amtrak, freight railroads and others to upgrade security and authorizes pilot programs for passenger, baggage and cargo screening.

In the House, Oberstar also introduced a measure in May that would provide $1 billion for rail-network safety. A similar bill failed last year. The new bill would also require rail carriers to provide security training to workers to deal with terrorist threats.

Steve Hansen, spokesman for Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he could not assess the chances for increased funding for rail security in the wake of the London bombings.

Friday, July 8, 2005

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