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U.S. focusing on boosting rail security

(Newsday posted the following article by India Autry on its website on July 21.)

NEW YORK -- After terrorist bombings of trains and a bus in London, U.S. officials have taken steps to better protect mass transit systems.

A test carried out before the London bombings may help bolster security. A 2004 pilot program tested officials' ability to screen rail passengers and their baggage for explosives and offered promising results, authorities say.

For the first part of the program, Amtrak and Maryland Rail Commuter passengers leaving the New Carrolton station in Maryland in May 2004 walked through a screening portal before boarding, placing their carry-ons, coats, hats and laptops on a conveyor belt to be screened separately.

Average wait time for each passenger was fewer than two minutes, compared with a wait of 10 minutes for airport screening, said Lara Uselding, a Transportation Security Administration spokeswoman.

The TSA ran the pilot program and funded it using $1 million of federal rail security monies and contributions of facilities and personnel from Amtrak.

"We're seeing that we can really enhance rail security with minimum customer inconvenience," Uselding said.

Because the screening targeted only explosives, passengers didn't have to part with keys, cell phones, change and other metal objects during screening.

Chemical-detecting canines were used to find explosives as well as to screen portals.

From June 5, 2004, to July 7, 2004, program employees screened checked luggage, temporarily stored personal items, unclaimed baggage and cargo at the Amtrak station in Washington's Union Station, Uselding said. It took an average of 29 seconds to screen each of the nearly 9,000 items, and there were no passenger delays, she added.

For the remainder of July and for part of August, passengers on the Shoreline East commuter car leaving New Haven, Conn., were screened along with their baggage while the car was in motion, she said.

Of more than 5,800 people screened, 54 completed feedback cards, 96 percent of customers saying they were satisfied with the screening process and the demeanor of the personnel.

Some wrote responses such as "Bravo," "Glad you're doing this," "People are friendly" and "This makes me feel a lot safer and more relaxed on my way to work," Uselding said.

She said TSA and other Department of Homeland Security officials are analyzing how to implement the program on a larger scale, but there is no timeline for action.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

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