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More railroad security needed

(The following article by Natasha Lee was posted on the Stamford Advocate website on December 14.)

DARIEN, Conn. -- Elected officials expressed concern last night that rail stations still aren't well-equipped to protect commuters from possible terrorist threats.

Officials pointed to limited funding and a lack of coordination between government agencies as contributing factors.

"What we learned is there's a lot being done, but unfortunately much remains on the plate of the state to secure and make more safe our rail line," state Sen. Andrew McDonald, D-Stamford, said in an interview.

A forum last night at Darien Town Hall on rail security was coordinated by McDonald and state Sens. Bob Duff, D-Norwalk, and Bill Finch, D-Bridgeport. The six-member panel included officials from the Department of Transportation and Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

Since July's mass transit attacks in London, the senators have been calling for an increase in spending on transit security. The bombings on the city's subway killed 56 people, including four of the bombers.

The senators said Connecticut got the short shrift when it received less than 1.5 percent of a $37.5 million federal grant from the Transit Security Grant Program allocations.

The grant, awarded in April, was divided among the tri-state area with New York getting $29.5 million, New Jersey $7.5 million and Connecticut $510,000.

The New Haven Line of Metro-North Railroad also will benefit from a $212 million security upgrade that will add surveillance cameras and motion sensors over the next three years.

McDonald and Duff expressed concern that the state and Metro-North are not investigating whether new Metro-North rail cars can sustain biological and bomb attacks. Earlier this month, the state DOT and Metro-North completed designs for new cars on the New Haven Line.

"It is evident that there is a lack of coordination between the DOT and other outside groups. This is an issue that must have flexibility," Duff said in an interview.

But rail and homeland security officials said much is being done to protect commuters. Metro-North is the third-largest commuter rail line in the country, carrying an average of 110,000 Connecticut commuters into New York City daily. Stamford is the busiest station on the New Haven Line after Grand Central Terminal.

Peter Richter, acting assistant rail administrator for the Department of Transportation, said the $510,000 grant will be put to good use and could be used to purchase new rail cars.

"It doesn't sound like a lot, but it's a step in the right direction,"
Richter said.

The state has deployed more state troopers and bomb-sniffing dogs on trains and station platforms, and transit employees are receiving training on how to look for peculiar behavior or suspicious packages.

Sean McLaughlin, assistant deputy chief for the MTA police department, said it plans to double the number of bomb-sniffing dogs that patrol the platforms to 50 by next year.

Some audience members said the state needs more security to patrol stations and that state police should be inspecting bags on platforms.

State police have said previously that they decided against bag searches in Connecticut because the commuter population isn't as large.

Jim Cameron, vice chairman of the Connecticut Rail Commuter Council, urged the senators to fight for more money to increase transit personnel on the trains and platforms.

"A half a million dollars probably won't feed your bomb-sniffing dogs for a year," Cameron said. "It's an insult. We don't have enough money to get the personnel needed."

Thursday, December 15, 2005

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