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U.S. tests its bomb checks on PATH riders and bags

(The following article by Patrick McGeehan was posted on the New York Times website on February 7.)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Some Manhattan-bound commuters were surprised yesterday to become part of the federal government's latest experiment in preventing terrorism on the nation's rail network.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the Department of Homeland Security started selectively screening passengers and their bags for explosives as they entered the PATH station at Exchange Place in Jersey City. A team of 11 screeners flown in from California asked commuters to walk through metal detectors and pass their briefcases and backpacks through scanning machines, just as they would at an airport.

Unlike airline passengers, the PATH riders did not have to empty their pockets or remove their shoes, leaving most of them grinning rather than grousing about erosion of civil liberties.

"Thankfully, my materials didn't get tossed," said Bernard McGovern, a human-resources manager from Caldwell, N.J. He was delayed less than a minute before being grilled about the experience by reporters, but said he doubted that regular screening would always be so quick.

"I can't see it not being a delay," Mr. McGovern said.

The screening, which will continue for three weeks, is part of a test of how technology can be used to head off bombings like those in the London subway last summer and on commuter trains in Madrid in March 2004. A second phase of the study, which will involve methods of screening passengers from a distance, possibly using infrared scanners, is scheduled for later this year, but a location has not been chosen, said Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the Department of Homeland Security.

The department expects to spend $10 million on the entire project. Its purpose, Mr. Orluskie said, is "looking at this technology and how this technology works in this environment without hindering traffic flow." He said he was not aware of any other use of airport-style screening in train or subway stations in the country.

To speed commuters through the process, the metal detectors have been set to be less sensitive than those in airports, Mr. Orluskie said.

"You can walk through with scissors, pocket knives, that sort of thing, and it does not go off, because that's not what they're looking for," he said.

During rush hours, the screeners choose subjects at a predetermined rate, maybe every eighth passenger. At slower times, they may switch to screening all of them or all of those with larger bags, officials said. Riders who decline to participate in the test will be free to walk away unless one of the two Port Authority police officers standing by considers their behavior suspicious, said an official overseeing the test.

James Simpson, 53, a courier from Harlem whose messenger bag passed through an X-ray machine yesterday morning, said the whole idea was suspect.

"I don't think this is going to do anything," he said. "This is just to make people feel better."

In his case, mission not accomplished.

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

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