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For mass transit, security always will have gaps, the experts agree

(The following article by Rudy Larini and Ron Marsico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on July 8.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Some of the deadliest terror attacks since 9/11 have been carried out on rail and subway systems, considered easy targets for terrorists because it is virtually impossible to secure a transit network designed to move tens of thousands of passengers as quickly as possible.

"Mass transportation systems will always be vulnerable to some extent if we want to keep them as efficient as they are today," said Rafi Ron, president of New Age Solutions, a transportation-security consulting firm based in Washington, D.C.

Yesterday's series of London subway bombings was the third devastating attack on rail facilities in 1 1/2 years. In February 2004, an explosion ripped through a Moscow subway car, killing 41. A month later, 191 people were killed in a sequence of Madrid railroad bombings.

On Tuesday, New Jersey's Office of Counter-Terrorism in the state Attorney General's Office warned in a bulletin that New Jersey's heavily used commuter rail system was vulnerable to terrorist attacks. After yesterday's bombings, police patrols were added to New Jersey stations and trains and bomb-detecting canines were brought in.

Still, bus and rail security is unlikely ever to reach the level dedicated to air travel.

Transit officials said yesterday that screening bus, train and subway passengers for explosives and other dangerous materials is simply not practical.

"The daily mass transit commuter system is not set up in a way that would facilitate the screening of each individual passenger as they board a bus or a train," said Anthony Coscia, chairman of the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the PATH subway system, used by 200,000 riders a day.

"Unlike the airline system, it's called the mass transit system for a reason," said George Warrington, executive director of NJ Transit, which provides daily service for almost 780,000 passengers on 700 trains and 1,100 buses. "Mass transit is about efficiently and speedily moving people during peak periods. By nature, it's an open system."

Noting that New York's Penn Station handles 1 million bus, train and subway passengers every day, Warrington said bus and rail stations do not lend themselves to the same degree of personal screening that airline passengers undergo.

"The nature of the system and the design of the system is openness, in order to facilitate ease of access," he said. "In the business, we talk about the ease and simplicity of access."

The consensus among experts was that airport-type screening of all mass transit passengers and their baggage would be enormously costly in terms of both manpower and equipment.

"We are not ready to think seriously about the cost of putting the same kinds of security on trains that we have on airlines," said Roy Licklider, a political science professor at Rutgers University. "And I don't think we should be, because the danger is not that great at this point.

"It would fundamentally undercut the point of having a mass transit system," he said. "It would really change the way we do business with trains."

Bus and rail commuters, the experts said, would be hard-pressed to endure the degree of inconvenience of security checkpoints and baggage inspections that airline passengers now routinely accept.

"The threat would have to be enormous, and it would have to be perceived by the public as being enormous," Licklider said.

"How many people are going to use the system if we create so many inherent delays?" said Christopher Kozub, assistant director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers. "People are going to say, 'I'm going to get in my car.'"

Christopher Falkenberg, head of Insite Security, a security consultant, agreed that airport-level security is not practical for trains and buses.

"There isn't any technology that's quick enough to process lots and lots of people like the numbers that use NJ Transit or the PATH," said Falkenberg, who was a Secret Service agent during the Clinton administration.

James Carafano, a homeland security expert with the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., questioned how much more secure mass transit facilities can be made.

"They're designed to move a lot of people in close, confined space very quickly," he said. "You can't do screening like you do in an airport where you have (relatively) low volumes of people going through confined spaces."

Americans, he added, "like to move around this country freely. You're going to take that away from them?"

All the transit experts agreed that the most cost-effective security measures for buses and trains are ones that are already in place and enhanced after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Closed-circuit television and other surveillance equipment must be used at bus and train stations, and sensitive areas of mass transit infrastructure must be made secure. Mass transit staff must undergo training to recognize suspicious behavior, while passengers should be made aware of the need to look out for and report anything out of the ordinary, especially bags left unattended.

Warrington said NJ Transit has made a substantial investment in security over the past several years, doubling spending on patrol and surveillance measures to almost $30 million. He said the transit agency has increased the size of its police force by 75 percent, from 120 officers two years ago to 225 today.

Tuesday's bulletin from the state Attorney General's Office urged vigilance in protecting mass transit facilities from attacks by explosions, deliberate derailments or toxic substances. It offered no recommendations on how to beef up security.

Sidney Caspersen, the state's counterterrorism director, said yesterday that based on the bulletin and intelligence gathered in the last month, New Jersey authorities already were eyeing enhanced security at various transportation facilities yesterday.

Security was stepped up at all New Jersey mass transit facilities.

"We were already planning on doing it today anyway, but we boosted it" after the London blasts, Caspersen said.

Staff writers Joe Malinconico and Rick Hepp contributed to this report.

Friday, July 8, 2005

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