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Rail-thin security

(The following article by Grant Gross was posted on CSO Magazine’s website on August 18.)

WASHINGTON -- Congress has declared that it's time to focus on securing the nation's railroads. Exactly how to do that is still up for debate.

A group of U.S. lawmakers are pushing bills this year to improve rail security, saying the nation's railroads have taken a backseat to other antiterrorism funding. But rail-related trade groups are lukewarm to these initiatives because, they say, their provisions will increase costs for industry and consumers.

Six rail security bills, sharing many of the same provisions, have been introduced in Congress, but none has moved out of committee yet. Five of the six call for a rail-vulnerability assessment to be conducted by the Department of Homeland Security. DHS is tasked with making recommendations such as improving the security of tunnels and bridges and deploying surveillance equipment and weapons detection technology. The calls for more transportation security came before DHS raised the threat level to high for the nation's mass transit systems after the July 7 terrorist bombs hit London subways and a public transit bus.

The primary sponsors of five of the six bills are Democrats. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who chairs the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, introduced the sixth bill, which covers both railroad and other transportation security provisions, in May.

The sponsors of these bills argue that rail traffic has been nearly ignored in recent efforts to improve transportation security. "Five times as many passengers travel by rail as by airplane, and yet we've spent 100 times more on aviation security than rail security since 9/11," says Rep. Stephen F. Lynch (D-Mass.), sponsor of the Rail Transit Security and Safety Act. Lynch's proposed rail safety bill authorizes $4.5 billion over five years to improve rail security nationwide.

The U.S. government spent $4.4 billion on aviation security in 2004, compared with $115 million on rail and transit security, says Rep. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.). In its FY06 budget, Amtrak requested $100 million in security upgrades for personnel and critical facilities and $600 million for fire and safety improvements in tunnels in the Northeast. President Bush's FY06 budget, however, includes only $32 million for surface transportation security, Oberstar said in May while introducing his Rail Security Act. "Securing Amtrak and other rail facilities is a formidable task, but Congress must get it done," Oberstar asserted. "That requires federal leadership and federal resources—both are long overdue."

Yet two rail-related trade groups haven't offered support for any of these bills. Both the Association of American Railroads (AAR) and the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) say they have concerns about some provisions. APTA has questioned whether money for rail inspectors—which is included as part of some of the bills—is needed, with no security standards for rail inspections currently in place.

Friday, August 19, 2005

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