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Transit security seen and unseen

(The following article by Paul Duggan and Lyndsey Layton was posted on the Washington Post website on July 14.)

WASHINGTON -- A week after bombs killed dozens of subway and bus passengers in London, transit officials in the Washington area said yesterday that they are maintaining high security for rail commuters, using cameras, explosive-sniffing dogs and scores of police officers to protect stations, tracks, bridges and other potential terrorist targets.

Some of the security measures that authorities described were clearly visible to riders on suburban commuter trains and Metro subway lines yesterday. Officers were on duty at some Virginia Railway Express stations, for example, and some Metro riders were on platforms guarded by officers toting automatic weapons.

"At the station, there are definitely more cops, more security," said Joe DiBello, 25, who commutes from Baltimore to Washington on Maryland's MARC trains.

Yet elsewhere on commuter and subway lines, heightened security was nowhere in evidence.

"I haven't seen much of a difference," said Sherie Mayz, 20, riding Metro's Blue Line to the Pentagon. "They need to show it more."

MARC and VRE officials said their rail lines have increased the use of surveillance cameras and bomb-sniffing dogs at "critical infrastructure" locations and beefed up patrols by officers in uniform and plainclothes, on foot, in vehicles and aboard watercraft. "Some of it you will see," said Mark Roeber, a VRE spokesman. "Some of it you will not see."

Meanwhile, Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson said the system is considering inspecting passengers' bags at random. She said officials have begun researching the legal issues associated with such a practice.

"It's something I very much want to do," Hanson said. "The timing is important on something like that, and I feel that this is a time when it would be received well."

Other transit systems have stepped up their security.

At the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority in Boston, officers have been working extended shifts since the London bombings, with some workdays stretched to 15 hours and others lasting 11 hours, Deputy Chief John Martino said. Transit police are performing random checks of commuter rail trains with bomb-sniffing dogs during rush hours, he said.

In New York, the police department has posted one officer on every train since the London bombings.

"I wish I had what New York has," Hanson said.

Among rail passengers yesterday -- from Vienna to Baltimore, Woodley Park to Seat Pleasant, and all over downtown -- an air of cautious calm prevailed. Commuters generally seemed wary of terrorism, yet largely undaunted, riding in and around the nation's capital with a life-goes-on attitude.

The bombings in London last Thursday, which killed at least 52 people and wounded more than 700 others, seemed at once an ocean away and close to home.

"When your number's up, your number's up," said Francie Keenan, 50, who works for a Baltimore charitable foundation and travels to Washington by MARC train about once a week. "You just can't go around worrying about it."

Carolyn Larson, however, does worry. Riding from Takoma to Union Station on Metro's Red Line, Larson, 65, a librarian, said she thinks about terrorism "more than I used to. When our kids were younger, they took the Metro to high school. I wonder if I'd do that today."

Tanya Callaway, 35, a satellite radio manager, said she worries, too. "I'm always on guard," she said, traveling from Capitol Hill to Ballston on the Orange Line. "I'm looking for a couple of things -- bags, anything suspicious. Instead of looking for somebody who wants to rob me, I'm looking for somebody who wants to kill everybody."

Yet in Manassas, Hasan Kasmi, 18, said he felt at ease boarding a VRE car. "I wouldn't imagine anyone targeting out here," said Kasmi, an intern at a Washington law firm. "You'd think I would think more about it. I guess since the attack in London just happened, it won't happen soon again."

Metro, which has a 380-member police force, has been deploying its normal patrol of about 50 officers on each of three shifts, according to a Metro source who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the information is not public. The source said that shifts have not been extended and that there has been no blanket cancellation of days off or vacation time.

Chief Hanson declined to discuss patrol levels but said some officers have worked extra hours, and some have opted to work instead of going on vacation.

"One of the issues we're trying to figure out is how do you sustain this -- how long can you do this without burning people out," Hanson said.

She said she ordered desk officers who normally work in civilian clothes to put on uniforms and go to high-volume stations at peak travel times.

"Our administrative staff goes out every morning and afternoon, and we mix it up," she said, adding that Metro continues to get help from other agencies, including the U.S. Capitol, Amtrak and D.C. police forces.

"Maybe it doesn't look like much because the numbers are kind of small to begin with," she said. "So we're trying to supplement it with everyone we've got -- administrators, station managers, custodians."

At Capitol South, for instance, as commuter Daisey Vargas watched yesterday, two Capitol Police officers toting automatic weapons walked along a platform and peered into the tunnels.

"I actually feel safe, but now I'm a little nervous, because I don't usually see them here," said Vargas, 21, a Treasury Department intern.

Larson also noted the heightened security. "I've seen more police around the Metro stations," the librarian said.

Beverly Allen, 44, wondered what good it will do.

"Look at London -- they have the cameras and the security, and what did that stop?" said Allen, an administrator at a consulting firm who rides Metro trains from Prince George's County to Union Station. "I don't think having machine guns in the subway [will] stop people from leaving a bag."

Still, she added: "I know they're doing their best. What else can you really do?"

Other commuters sounded resigned to the threat.

"You're scared, but you have to make a living, so you do what you have to do to get to work," said Connie Jackson, 28, a federal employee riding from Prince George's to the Archives stop. At the Pentagon, Tahira Mohamed, 28, agreed.

"Sure, you are concerned about your safety," said Mohamed, an accountant. "But you can't run and hide and let them make you their prisoners."

At Baltimore's Penn Station, MARC commuters said security was increased after the London bombings and remains heightened. Meanwhile, conductors told passengers to look in seat pockets for information on emergency exits and other security matters.

"That's different," Keenan said. "That's something you usually hear on planes." And when the train arrived at Union Station, the conductor put a little extra energy into the standard announcement advising passengers to make sure they have their belongings.

"Check and double-check," he said.

Lt. Col. John E. Gavrilis, deputy police chief for the Maryland Transit Administration, described the MARC system as "very safe" because of increases in camera surveillance and in patrols by uniformed and plainclothes officers and bomb-sniffing dogs.

At times yesterday morning, four officers were visible in the Baltimore station, sometimes drinking coffee, sometimes scanning the crowd. At Union Station, not much added security could be seen.

MARC riders who board at other stations said they noticed additional security immediately after the London attacks, including a marked police car and a police dog patrolling at the Halethorpe station. But they did not see that yesterday.

On the VRE, commuters said they have noticed police officers patrolling stations with dogs, checking unattended bags and talking to passengers.

Riders said they have also heard more announcements instructing people to watch for any suspicious-looking bags and to report them to authorities.

Scattered on trains yesterday were copies of a VRE newsletter featuring an article on the rail line's security measures since the London attacks: increased marine patrols of bridges, more sweeps of stations for "suspicious materials" and packages, and the use of Virginia State Police "sniffer" dogs.

The newsletter also offered suggestions: "Observe new people, not 'regulars,' who are not relaxed or [are] uncomfortable. Be alert for suspicious vehicles idling proximate to station entrances and stairways."

Vishnu Palaniswamy, 30, of Bristow, an Amtrak software developer who was taking the VRE train to his job near the Union Station stop, said he has noticed rail officials being more vigilant when they step off the train at a station.

Before the London attacks, he said, "they would just chat. And now they're talking and looking more. Maybe because I'm watching them."

Brian Gwinner, 33, who was riding yesterday to his job at the Transportation Security Administration in Arlington County, said he saw two or three police officers when he boarded at Broad Run and twice that number when he passed through stations in Fairfax County.

"It does give more of a safe feeling," he said.

Yet, in the end, nothing can guarantee safety, said M. Joan Johnson, who was riding Metro yesterday. "I would like my longevity, but if it's my day, then that's it," said Johnson, 65, a substitute teacher who lives in Alexandria.

"You can't live your life pent up about what's going to happen in the next moment."

Thursday, July 14, 2005

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