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Rail passengers screened in test of tighter security

(The following article by Michelle Garcia was posted on the Washington Post website on February 8.)

JERSEY CITY, N.J. -- Manhattan-bound commuters passed through metal detectors and shoved their briefcases and knapsacks through X-ray machines Tuesday in the first test of airport-style security in a rail system.

Government screeners searched bags and scanned passengers for explosives, but unlike in airports, commuters did not have to remove their shoes or change and cell phones from their pockets. Officials hope the screening won't take more than a minute per passenger.

The 30-day pilot project, led by the Department of Homeland Security, is part of a two-phase program with a $10 million price tag. In 2004, the Transportation Security Administration conducted a similar pilot program at New Carrollton and Union Station in the D.C. area and in New Haven, Conn. But federal officials used different equipment and screeners randomly selected passengers for testing.

"What they are expecting out of this project is to collect information on customer wait times and impact on operations," said Larry Orluskie, a DHS spokesman. "The idea is to not hinder people."

Screeners opted to wait out the morning rush at the PATH station here where trains run between New Jersey and New York City in tunnels under the Hudson River. Officials plan to stagger the hours of testing to focus on various traffic flows.

DHS launched the tests in response to a congressional directive to explore methods for preventing nuclear, chemical, biological and explosive terrorist threats after the attacks on London and Madrid.

In New Jersey, the Exchange Place station is surrounded by high-rise condos and former Wall Street firms that relocated after the 2001 terrorist attacks. DHS officers photographed passengers as they entered the security area.

"It was, like, five seconds," said Takushi Saito, a law student, after his screening. "I didn't know what was going on. I was also scared about how long I would be stuck there."

DHS selected the Jersey City site because of the station's configuration and its clearly defined peak hours. The next phase will employ non-obtrusive scanning devices such as MRI and infrared technology, officials said. The project is expected to end in September.
The security operation startled many commuters who said the government presence suggested a new terrorist threat. The screenings come at a time when New York City police are conducting random bag checks and state and local agencies search for ways to increase security of train lines and other infrastructure, including the installation of closed-circuit televisions.

"I understand times are changing. I don't think you can get used to it," said Aisha Kazi, 29, a student at New York University. "Every second you're reminded, you're not safe and your life is not normal."

The Exchange Place station serves 4,000 passengers during rush hour and 15,000 commuters daily, according to PATH officials. PATH is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which also owns the World Trade Center site.

Ian Cheewah, 40, said he last experienced similar security procedures in London. "It makes you think something is going to happen," Cheewah, a technology executive, said as he left the station. "It makes me more worried. It reminds you we're not living in a safe society -- not in America, anyway."

Wednesday, February 8, 2006

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