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Opinion: America's vulnerable railways

(The following editorial by Thomas Oliphant was posted on the Boston Globe website on July 10.)

WASHINGTON -- Few outside the usual band of lobbyists and inside players noticed, but just three weeks ago, a Senate committee cut the budget for rail and mass transit security in this country by one-third.

This action by the Senate's appropriators, reducing next year's budget to $100 million from $150 million this year, might have made some sense if there were evidence that it would have no impact on security.

However, the opposite is the case and has been for more than three years of inexcusable neglect and conniving between the Bush administration and its corporate buddies.

In the wake of last week's horror in London, it's a reasonable assumption that politicians here will scramble to restore the money, but even if that happens this summer, it is only a drop in the bucket.

Two years ago, the American Public Transport Association surveyed its transit agency members and uncovered about $6 billion in unmet needs. They do not lust for high-tech toys, but they need surveillance cameras for trains and stations, radio communications equipment, technology to control access to sensitive locations and to locate moving trains instantly -- the infrastructure of rapid response and protection.

Instead, the evidence shows an airport-fixated domestic security system that has little relation to real threat. Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, some $250 million has been spent on rail and transit security, compared to more than $18 billion on air.

Among the 50 percent of the 9/11 Commission's specific recommendations a year ago that Congress and Bush have yet to act upon was the sensible notion that there should be a national transportation security strategy based on known threats and dangers.

Instead, there appears to have been not only inaction and delay, but unholy alliances between industry and government to avoid taking measures to protect against potentially catastrophic terrorism that is not difficult to imagine.

The classic example, almost from the moment this country was attacked, was the politically hyper-active chemical industry, which used White House contacts to block stiff rules requiring security upgrades at some 100 plants around the country. But this corporate and government misbehavior continues to this day.

The replacement of Bush crony Tom Ridge by Michael Chertoff this year as secretary of homeland security produced commitments for change from the highly regarded former prosecutor and federal judge, but Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts has concluded after three years of frustrating labor that the talk and the action don't line up.

Markey has often been the lone voice, not only on chemical and nuclear plants but on the movement of ''extremely hazardous materials" -- chemicals that can kill when their vapors are inhaled or are highly explosive or flammable. He and Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware have encountered nothing but industry and administration obstacles in their attempts to force a sensible approach to guarding against disasters that might make 9/11 pale by comparison.

Biden recently cited a study by the Naval Research Laboratory that estimated as many as 100,000 people in a densely populated area could die within 30 minutes if a single, 90-ton freight car carrying chlorine were punctured.

Against industry (shipping as well as manufacturing) opposition and Bush's indifference, Biden and Markey have pushed separate legislation ideas that would give the government authority to reroute shipments of these extremely dangerous substances around major metropolitan areas and to force other security improvements on the profit-crazed industry.

But the best metaphor for the sorry state of affairs in the transit and rail sectors is an obscure court case here, involving an ordinance passed by the District of Columbia City Council. The local government had the temerity to ban shipments of the most dangerous chemicals from certain zones around the nation's capital, something the Bush people should have been doing on their own.

So what is the response? The shipping people (led by rail giant CSX Transportation) backed by the administration, files a lawsuit here to block the law's enforcement. They lost in US district court, but rather than accept the result they are appealing. Meanwhile nothing is happening.

The events in London provide all the evidence we need that terrorism is alive and functioning internationally nearly four years after 9/11.

It might be helpful if the government showed the same resolve as the terrorists, but it hasn't.

Monday, July 11, 2005

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