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Seeking a safe journey as anxiety rides the rails

(The following article by Avi Salzman was posted on the New York Times website on July 24.)

NEW YORK -- One rider always sits near the back of the train and stays close to the doors. Another takes note of all the exits when she sits down and tries to avoid walking through underground tunnels when she disembarks. Others watch closely for unattended packages, or passengers wearing bulky coats on hot days.

"We all have to be really aware," said Seth Zirkel, 43, who was riding last Monday on the New Haven line of the Metro-North Railroad to his business development job in New York.

After the bombings in London on July 7, which killed 56 people on trains and a bus, and the bombs there on Thursday, Connecticut commuters are questioning their own security on local transit. Many are on edge, saying the government cannot possibly keep them completely safe, so they have to rely on themselves, and on each other.

Meanwhile, state officials are trying to answer these concerns with new policies and procedures.

Almost immediately after the July 7 London attack, Gov. M. Jodi Rell ordered extra security measures on Metro-North and Amtrak trains. Last Monday Diane Farrell, a Democrat and the Westport First Selectman who plans to challenge United States Representative Christopher Shays again in 2006, called for cameras in train stations, a measure supported by the governor. And Connecticut officials say they hope to shore up train safety with part of the state's share of a $37 million grant to the New York region from the federal Department of Homeland Security, which was announced in April.

These new efforts join others that have been put in place since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But some question whether a patchwork of safety measures will be effective, and say that, inevitably, commuters have to accept some risk, and be vigilant themselves.

On the day of the London bombings, Ms. Rell ordered one or two state troopers to ride nearly every Metro-North and Amtrak train and to look out for suspicious packages and passengers. She also posted state troopers in Connecticut Transit garages in Hartford, New Haven and Stamford, where buses providing local service are parked, and she ordered National Guard troops to patrol bus and train stations across the state, as well as ferry terminals in New London and Bridgeport. Towns have also dispatched local officers to train stations.

In addition, Ms. Rell signed an order allowing New York state police officers to make arrests on Connecticut trains and in train stations. Gov. George E. Pataki of New York signed a similar order for Connecticut troopers.

"We have no intelligence information whatsoever which would indicate there is a threat to our region," Ms. Rell said in a statement shortly after the bombings. "However, given the bombings in London we must take every security precaution possible."

More than 100,000 passengers ride the Metro-North New Haven line every day, and some said they doubted that one or two officers could find or foil a terrorist on a crowded rush hour train.

"I don't know how observant you can be," said Julie Puzzl, an actuary from Stratford who commutes to Stamford.

Ms. Rell's order placing police officers on the trains lasts 30 days, said her spokesman, Judd Everhart, who added that the governor was considering whether to keep them on the trains when the order expires in two weeks.

Even before the Sept. 11 attacks, Metro-North had conducted evacuation drills from trains and from Grand Central Terminal. In June, the Homeland Security Department performed an airflow test to see how gas travels through the terminal. Metro-North officials have also urged people to report suspicious packages through its "If you see something, say something" campaign.

And since the London bombings, reports of suspicious packages have increased. As of last Monday, the Metro-North police had received 90 reports of suspicious packages, almost twice the usual number of reports, and they have evacuated train stations twice; one incident was on July 14, when an unattended briefcase was found at the Stamford station.

"People are jittery," said Marjorie Anders, a spokeswoman for Metro-North.

In a survey taken last year, 94 percent of New Haven line riders said they were satisfied with security on the trains, and 90 percent said they were satisfied with the security at the stations, Ms. Anders said.

But a survey taken now may offer different results.

"I think that there's certainly a heightened level of anxiety," said Paul Luthringer, a commuter who rides the New Haven line from Rye, N.Y., into New York City. "I think you can see it in the rider's faces. Everyone's very aware of the people around them."

Others said the commuter train system seemed exposed.

"I think Metro-North is particularly vulnerable," said Ms. Puzzl, the Stratford commuter, because "people might be more likely to let their guard down in suburbia."

The $37 million Homeland Security grant to the region may reduce that vulnerability. The money is set aside for rail and bus security, said Christopher Cooper, spokesman for the Connecticut Department of Transportation. Connecticut officials are meeting with New York and New Jersey officials to determine how to spend the money, which Mr. Cooper said was the largest such grant since the Sept. 11 attacks.

Among the options are security cameras. The Stamford train station, owned and operated by the state, has 14 video cameras and is the only station in Connecticut to have cameras. They were installed before the Sept. 11 attacks, primarily to combat crime, Ms. Anders said.

But most stations in Connecticut, though owned by the state, are operated by the towns where they are located, and there is no standard policy on cameras. The state is considering using some of the Homeland Security money for cameras, but would have to work with each town to determine whether to place cameras at the station, and to work out other details.

"If you were to have cameras, who would watch the monitors?" asked Mr. Cooper of the Connecticut transportation department. "And who does that person report to, the owner or the operator?"

Transit departments in other states have already begun using cameras. New Jersey Transit has a particularly sophisticated system of video surveillance. Installed about 18 months ago, its "smart cameras" can detect abnormal movements and objects and alert officials, said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for the agency. The cameras have warned officials about unattended bags in the past, he said. Mr. Stessel said the agency had placed the cameras at numerous strategic spots, including major train stations and bridges, and plans to continue to expand the program.

On Monday, Ms. Farrell said she thought cameras would be a good idea for the Westport station.

She said that Westport had considered buying cameras for the station before the Sept. 11 to deal with car theft, but that the cost was prohibitive. Now, the cost has gone down, she said, and the threat of terrorism makes the cameras even more appropriate. The video footage could be watched by officers who already watch monitors of cellblocks in the local jail, Ms. Farrell said.

She added that she hoped "the state will see the value of installing the cameras all the way along the Metro-North line."

But others said placing cameras in stations and police officers in trains was unlikely to deter terrorists.

Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, a rider advocacy group, called all the various security proposals political ploys.

"I think this rush towards putting cops on the trains and putting cameras in stations is giving false hope to commuters," he said. "It's a public relations stunt by government to say we're doing something. We can spend millions on putting in cameras and still not do anything to stop a determined terrorist."

Mr. Cameron said the government should concentrate more on the root causes of terrorism than on security Band-Aids.

"I don't think that what's being discussed and where money's being spent is effective," he said.

Christopher A. Kozub, associate director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University, which receives grants from the federal government to research transit safety programs, said that a comprehensive security plan would be the most effective deterrent, and that no one element would make commuters safe.

"A good security program is not just policies, it's not just technology, it's not just training," he said. "It's a programmatic approach that includes all of those elements."

Monday, July 25, 2005

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