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Railway fears linger, despite progress

(The Associated Press circulated the following article by Wayne Parry on July 17.)

SOUTH AMBOY, N.J. -- As she sat on a bench waiting for her train in South Amboy, Dolores Abney reflected on how vulnerable the rails are to terrorist attacks.

Vehicles were parked less than 10 feet from the tracks, impeded by only a 5-inch-high curb - hardly a deterrent to a car or truck bomber.

"You can roll right up on it and not even have to get out of the vehicle," the Sayreville woman said. "I feel nervous every day I take the train. I think they are going to target the trains because they want to disrupt us, and they know how many people commute by train."

She spoke the day after coordinated bombings killed at least 200 people in India last week, and just days after details of an alleged terrorist plot to bomb the PATH train tunnels between New Jersey and New York were revealed.

Protecting passenger and commercial rail lines will be a top priority of homeland security funding that New Jersey is preparing to distribute this month.

"Rail is a choice of terrorists in other countries," said Richard Canas, New Jersey's homeland security director. "Those people haven't given up using that method. It's probably right almost at the top of our priority list."

Much has already been done to address rail security, including pilot programs to screen travelers for explosives at a PATH station in Jersey City, concrete barriers placed at key access points, and random deployment of bomb-sniffing dogs on passenger lines.

But officials said much more remained to be done. A determined terrorist could still take advantage of numerous weaknesses in the rail security system, such as downed fencing along NJ Transit and Amtrak tracks and numerous spots where someone could walk or drive right up to tracks.

The biggest vulnerability, experts said, remains the fact that bags are not searched before passengers board because of a desire to keep the system moving quickly. Tuesday's bombings in India appear to have involved explosives placed in overhead luggage racks of passenger train cars.

"Transit is an open system. Anybody can get on it," NJ Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober said. "That's the way it was designed, and that's the way it should stay."

He said the railroad needed help from passengers and workers to augment security improvements it had already installed, including extensive cameras, card-access areas, radiation detectors, and sensors that alert authorities when someone enters a restricted area.

NJ Transit recently conducted a systemwide threat assessment, which did take note of the vehicle access at South Amboy, Bober said. The most urgent vulnerabilities are being addressed first, but local police have been enlisted to step up patrols in and around the station, which also has an extensive camera system, he said.

"We are constantly, 24/7, looking at ways to improve what we have right now and make it a safe and secure system," Bober said.

The second phase of the pilot program at the Exchange Place PATH station in Jersey City began Thursday. Passengers pass through a cordon while low-power imaging equipment scans for anything hidden under their clothing. The technology could eventually be deployed in rail systems across the country.

Monday, July 17, 2006

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