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Security to expand at PATH entrances

(The following article by Ron Marsico was posted on the Newark Star-Ledger website on February 1.)

NEWARK, N.J. -- Entryways to PATH trains at Jersey City's Exchange Place station will resemble airport security checkpoints starting Monday, but the process won't be nearly as taxing or time-consuming for passengers, federal officials promised yesterday.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security said wait times will average less than a minute as officials unveiled the baggage X-ray machines and walk-through metal detectors set to be deployed for three weeks as part of a $500,000 pilot program to help improve rail security nationwide.

"Obviously, the New York/New Jersey area is a geographic area of substantial risk, both by the concentration of people who are here and by its history," said Doug Bauer, an acting DHS director. "And therefore, our presence here and our partnership with the Port Authority is most important."

The Jersey City checks will pose less of a burden because machines designed to test for explosives that could destroy trains do not have to be calibrated as sensitively as those protecting airliners, officials said.

The goal of safeguarding rail lines intensified after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, particularly following the March 2004 Madrid train bombing and the July 2005 London subway blasts.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates PATH, will assist DHS during the tests that run until March 1.

Some 4,000 passengers use the Exchange Place station hourly during the rush-hour peak, with roughly 15,000 using the station on a typical day.

Samuel Plumeri Jr., superintendent of Port Authority police, said the pilot will "help us protect our most valuable asset -- the traveling public."

DHS officials stress that the program is not designed to test technology, but rather to collect information and statistics that will be used to design and test specific systems between March 1 and Sept. 30.

Bauer said the subsequent tests will be designed to "push the technology envelope."
Locations have not been announced.

PATH riders also can keep keys, change and wallets in their pockets and shoes on their feet when they encounter the screening checkpoints, where passengers will be checked randomly for explosives, officials said.

Riders who set off alarms, however, will be delayed longer as officials subject those individuals to follow-up screening.

Since the program is a pilot, DHS officials say they will allow riders not wishing to be screened to access PATH trains via an elevator and entryway for the disabled. But once a rider passes through the turnstile, he or she must submit to screening.

Since last year's London bombings, random searches have been conducted periodically at PATH stations and New York City subway stations, but without the amount of security equipment planned at Exchange Place. A civil liberties challenge failed in New York, but the case is on appeal.

"We come up with a random number," Port Authority Police Inspector Keith Wolcott said. "And we keep that number depending on the flow of traffic of passengers into the station ... If it's low traffic, we can do more. If it's high traffic, we can only do less."

DHS will be deploying 11 U.S. Transportation Security Administration private contract screeners from San Francisco International Airport to conduct the tests at Exchange Place. Eight surveillance cameras will be set up to conduct time-motion studies to help evaluate passenger flows.

There will be two screening lines, served by eight turnstile lanes.

One cutting-edge piece of explosives detection equipment, known as the puff portal, will not be included because officials said the machine was tested in a prior rail security program.

Bauer said DHS is extremely sensitive to the idea of racial profiling and has taken steps to ensure that the process is truly random by insisting on use of strict mathematics to determine how passengers are picked for screening.

"My long-term hope for this plan ... is to enhance the security of the traveling public in ways that are affordable and sustainable," said Bauer, who said the preference is to have decisions made by local officials based on risk assessments.

Wednesday, February 1, 2006

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