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Amtrak, Metra remain vigilant in wake of terrorist attacks on commuter trains

(The following article by John K. Ryan was posted on the Star website on September 11.)

CHICAGO -- Five years ago tomorrow, the attacks came from the sky. It was four airplanes hijacked that fateful day.

It was also planes terrorists planned to use in the recently thwarted plot in London.

But it is not only from above that terrorism can strike. In March 2004, a series of coordinated bombings against the commuter train system of Madrid, Spain killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,500.

The London underground rail system saw similar coordinated bombings during rush hour in July 2005. Fifty-two people were killed in those attacks, while more than 700 were injured.

In such an environment, commuter railroads have stepped up security measures across the world.

This includes rail service in Chicago and the South Suburbs, primarily supplied by Amtrak and Metra. Both railroads have ratcheted up security measures on board as well as at downtown and suburban train stations.

Helping to do so at Amtrak are two former police chiefs from the South Suburbs.

Former Thornton Police Chief Phil Arnold now works as director of police services for inner city and west divisions for Amtrak police.

Gary Jones, former police chief in Hazel Crest, is captain of the Amtrak police Chicago division.

"I was with the Hazel Crest police department for 28 years and had a Metra stop in our village," Jones said. "The police department had a relationship with Metra security officers as well as with Amtrak. We worked with them on projects dealing with hazardous material and train accident responses."

Arnold, who was Thornton's chief of police five years ago, said local police learned back then that all emergency personnel need to be prepared for any type of terrorist action.

"We found out on 9-11 that those who deal with the threat most are first responders, whether local police or railroad security," Arnold said.

"How we did things in Thornton almost instantly changed. Within two weeks of 9-11, gas masks became part of our equipment after what we saw in New York."

Jones said supplying security to a municipality or to an entity such as a railroad has similarities.

"On the municipal level, our main job was to protect businesses and residents in the community," Jones said.

"Amtrak is a community unto itself. It's a lot like community policing, but with a slightly different focus."

Planes vs. trains

Offering security at a railroad station, however, has distinct differences from doing so at an airport.

Those flying major airlines these days have seen significant changes since 9-11. Being screened at airports has become an elaborate process involving a great amount of time.

Passengers riding Amtrak or one of several Metra lines out of the South Suburbs may not experience such tangible differences in their daily commutes.

Unlike airlines, screening passengers on commuter transit trains is just not feasible, according to officials.

"We have more than 200 stations in six counties and more than 500 miles of track," said Judy Pardonnet, spokeswoman for Metra.

Figures from a 2006 Metra ridership report, show a daily average of approximately 89,000 passengers boarding Metra trains on weekdays along the railroad's four main lines in the South Suburbs.

"We carry more passengers each day than airlines," Pardonnet said. "The logistics would not be there. The time constraints would be too much and our passengers would not tolerate the inconvenience."

The layout of a train station also makes screening difficult, said Marc Magliari, Chicago-based spokesperson for Amtrak.

"We are a different mode of transportation than airports," he said.

"When you take Amtrak or Metra — or Greyhound for that matter — there are many more points of access than you'd find at Midway."

"It comes down to balancing our open system and doing the best job to provide security," Pardonnet said.

To accomplish this, Metra and Amtrak rely on other forms of security. Among these are security cameras and added personnel.

"We've hired additional security officers who are off-duty police with full arrest powers. They supplement the Metra police," Pardonnet said.

"Some are uniformed and other are plainclothes, working the station and on board."

Amtrak has increased police patrols as well, especially when the security level is raised.

Both railroads also employ drug-sniffing dogs which work Union Station and Metra's five terminals in downtown Chicago.

"The dogs work as good deterrents," Pardonnet said.

If the dogs come upon any package deemed suspicious, the bomb and arson squad of the Chicago Police Department is called to the scene.
At Union Station, taxi cabs once allowed to pick up passengers on the service road under the station no longer have such access.

The fact that Amtrak tickets include passengers' names gives that railroad an added facet of security.

Similar to airline passengers, those riding Amtrak now need to show identification when purchasing their ticket, whether at Union Station or a suburban Amtrak station.

Random checks to match identification with the name on the ticket are done occasionally aboard Amtrak trains.

"That is increased at certain times, usually" Magliari said

Baggage, too, is randomly checked at stations, as are baggage cars.

Items being put on Amtrak trains are checked randomly, Magliari said, including baggage cars stopping at the Homewood Amtrak station.

"Some trains passing through that station have baggage cars, others don't. We reserve the right to check all," Magliari said.

Help from the masses

Since the bombings in Spain, passengers aboard Metra trains are given audio messages over train intercoms about reporting suspicious packages.

It is part of an effort Metra has been making to encourage passengers to become more aware of anything unusual at train stations and on board trains, Pardonnet claimed.

"We've had numerous delays due to passengers reporting items," she said. "We've gotten a good response to our 'If you see something suspicious, report it' campaign."

Both railroads have worked on security measures with the Transportation Security Administration, part of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"TSA is in constant contact with Amtrak security," Magliari said.

This year, the eight largest mass transit rail systems in the country have been awarded $103 million in security grant assistance from the DHS, according to TSA.

Eligibility announcements for further awards have been made and final grant awards to these systems will be made later this year, bringing the total to roughly $110 million.

Of that, $11 million was earmarked for the Chicago region.

Funds from DHS grant programs may be used for planning, training, equipment and other security enhancements.

At Metra, equipment such as security cameras were purchased from these grants. Money also was spent on training all 4,000 workers and contract carrier employees on everyday security and what to do in case of an incident.

"We work with DHS on our ongoing training. We've developed a plan since 9-11 and have gone ahead and implemented it," Pardonnet said.

"We had a security company come in to train not only first-line employees (those in contact with the public), but all through the administration staff and contract employees."

Monday, September 11, 2006

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