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Train attacks bring scrutiny to U.S. transit

(Gannett News Service circulated the following article by Raju Chebium on July 13.)

WASHINGTON -- As the safety of U.S. public transportation comes into sharper focus following the deadly Indian commuter-train bombings, experts say it'll be difficult - but not impossible - to thwart terrorist attacks on buses, subways and commuter trains.

People take 32 million trips daily on mass transit, compared with 2 million in airplanes, according to William Millar, head of the American Public Transportation Association. And since Sept. 11, 2001, airline security has become so tight that terrorists may be looking for other targets.

Asking passengers at, say, a busy subway stop to remove their shoes and go through metal detectors as they do in airports is impractical and would rob systems of speed and efficiency, experts say.

But that also makes mass transit more vulnerable, as illustrated by the Tuesday bombings in Mumbai, India, last year's bombings in the London subway, and the 2004 commuter-rail blasts in Madrid, Spain.

"You have to be realistic about it. A public place is a public place," said Brian Jenkins, a transit-security expert at San Jose State University's Mineta Transportation Institute. "If (terrorists are) determined to carry out large-scale violence, then unfortunately public surface transportation offers an attractive venue."

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there's no "specific or credible" intelligence to suggest a threat to U.S. transit systems after the bombings that have claimed almost 200 lives in Mumbai, which is also known as Bombay.

Since Sept. 11, authorities have increased armed and K-9 patrols, installed security cameras and sometimes conduct random passenger searches, all with an eye on boosting transit security without shutting down the systems, said Josh Filler, a former Homeland Security Department official who works for HNTB Corp., a consulting firm based in Kansas City, Mo.

Millar said enlisting the public's help in spotting suspicious people or activities also is helpful, though the biggest weapon in the authorities' arsenal is intelligence.

This month, U.S. and Lebanese authorities said they foiled a potential attack on a rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey because they got word of the preliminary terrorist plans.

On Tuesday, the Homeland Security Department and the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey began testing explosive-detection technology at a Jersey City subway station used by 15,000 people a day.

Since 2001, the Bush administration has spent some $20 billion on keeping the skies safe, but only $400 million on transit safety, Millar said. Transit agencies have spent $2 billion for safety in that time, but they need $6 billion over several years, he said.

Congress is beginning to focus on transit security, with hearings on the subject scheduled in the House this month. Transit officials like New Jersey Transportation Commissioner Kris Kolluri are rallying behind funding increases urged by Democratic senators from the Northeast.

Ross Capon, who heads the National Association of Railroad Passengers, said he's heard a lot of talk from Capitol Hill about spending more on transit security.

"I don't know if we are going to seen any action," he said Thursday. "Probably what happened in India will change that."

Friday, July 14, 2006

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