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What it takes to keep blood off the tracks

(The following article by Angie C. Marek was posted on the U.S. News & World Report website on July 10.)

WASHINGTON -- Last week's attacks in the London Underground provided a chilling reminder that mass transit systems have become the terrorists' latest target of choice--and that such systems are uniquely vulnerable to attack and almost impossible to protect.

The bombs--small packets of explosives detonated by timers--prompted chilling memories of the coordinated commuter-train attacks in Madrid in March 2004, which killed 191 people. Security experts have warned since September 11 that America can--and probably will--be attacked again. If, as the London attacks suggest, the next strike here comes on public transportation, which carries 14 million commuters a day, the consequences could be grave. "In strategic terms," a senior Department of Homeland Security official said of the terrorists, "targeting mass transit is right up their alley."

Which is why U.S. officials scrambled to ratchet up security late last week. In cities like New York and Washington, bomb-sniffing dogs and police officers carrying automatic weapons poured into train stations and patrolled boarding platforms and trains. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff nudged the threat level for mass transit and regional railroads to high, or "orange," up from elevated, or "yellow." "I think our transit systems are safe," Chertoff said at news briefing, but transit riders should "remain alert and report any suspicious activity" to authorities.

Plucky riders. Commuters, for the most part, seemed unfazed by it all. As a train roared toward the crowded Fullerton rail station on Chicago's North Side, Bill Novy, a 24-year-old drugstore manager, said he wouldn't change his travel habits. "I ride this every day," he said. "Been doing it since I was a little kid. We have to live our lives." Leslie Legare, a 33-year-old producer listening to her iPod in New York's Second Avenue F Line, agreed: "I try not to think about it. If I did, then I wouldn't get on the subway."

Such pluckiness is admirable, but emergency workers and other experts say there's no way to guarantee security on trains, subways, and light-rail systems. To be sure, there have been some improvements. Money from state and local governments and revenue from passenger fares have allowed mass transit systems nationwide to pump $2 billion into security over the past four years. Stations in most major cities are now equipped with bombproof trashcans, are patrolled by undercover agents, and, in some cases, have extensive networks of hidden video cameras. Boston and Washington already have expensive sensors that can sniff for traces of chemical agents.

But many say the government still hasn't done enough. "This country has been downright derelict in securing rail systems that carry thousands upon thousands of Americans," said Democratic Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, a daily Amtrak rider. The Transportation Security Administration, part of the Department of Homeland Security, has yet to complete a security strategy for all modes of transport, which was supposed to be delivered last December 31. The American Public Transportation Association points out that while the federal government has spent $18.1 billion on aviation security since 9/11, it has forked over only $250 million to secure the nation's rails and buses. The DHS says that number is misleading. The department has allocated $8.6 billion in state, local, and urban-area grants since 9/11; DHS spokesman Marc Short says the department is unsure exactly how much of the cash went to beefing up security on trains, subways, and buses but notes that it was up to local and state officials to decide how much went where.

Financial fix? The attacks in London could change such funding decisions. Senator Biden says he plans to try to tack a transit security bill he's written onto homeland security legislation that might be voted on this week; Biden's measure would add $1.1 billion for mass transit and rail security over the next five years, the bulk of it going toward adding ventilation in tunnels and bomb-sniffing dogs on train-boarding platforms. The Senate has passed his bill twice before, but the legislation has stalled repeatedly in the House.

Others wonder how much such things can be expected to accomplish. "The open access and high ridership of mass transit systems," said a March 2004 report by the Government Accountability Office, "make them both vulnerable to attack and difficult to secure." Some 600,000 people, for instance, tramp through New York's Pennsylvania Station every day. "The only thing throwing billions at rail security will do," says Jim Carafano of the Heritage Foundation, "is make security consultants rich."

Politicians, nonetheless, responded to last week's attacks with bravura and brave words. "Take the subway; ride the train," exhorted New York Gov. George Pataki. ". . . Go to work; play in the parks. The best security in the world is there to protect you." Pondering just how much protection that security can provide, though, is not exactly a comforting experience.

Monday, July 11, 2005

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