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Enhancing security

(The following article by Sharon Linstedt was posted on the Buffalo News website on November 8.)

BUFFALO -- Dozens of Amtrak passengers were "sniffed" for explosives residue Tuesday before they boarded trains at the Depew rail station as part of a federal pilot program.

Transportation Security Administration officers, armed with four Sabre 4000 portable detection units, screened random passengers boarding Amtrak's 7:10 a.m., 10:45 a.m. and 1:25 p.m. trains.

"It went really well. The travelers we screened were extremely cooperative, and the screenings were as quick and easy as we expected," said Brett O'Neil, TSA's Buffalo spokesman.

In the 30-second screenings, TSA officers wipe down passengers' carry-on luggage with a special cloth to collect any traces of explosives. The cloth swatch then is fed into the hand-held detection device for analysis.

"We got no hits on the items we screened, but if we had, the passenger and their luggage would have been subject to secondary screening," O'Neil said.

Not everyone was happy with the enhanced security.

Author Chad Kister, who stopped here on his way from Toronto to Ohio, complained about the presence of a dozen TSA officers and a police officer in a bulletproof vest at the Depew station.

"This seems way excessive to me and the wrong focus of priorities," said Kister, who argued that government should be encouraging train travel. "I don't think there's a credible threat of terrorism with trains."

The Sabre 4000 units, which are on loan from TSA headquarters to the Buffalo region through the end of the month, are similar in size and shape to a hand-held vacuum cleaner. In addition to detecting chemicals used in explosives, the units are able to detect the presence of chemical warfare agents and several types of illegal drugs.

The TSA also has brought in two specially trained canine teams as part of the explosives-detection pilot program.

"Right now the equipment is here on a loan basis, but we hope to establish a permanent program and have the constant capability to conduct these screenings," O'Neil said.

The screenings will continue today in Depew, then move from the Amtrak station to the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority's Metro Rail line on Thursday, kicking off several days of random checks at various light rail stations.

Because of the much larger volume of passengers boarding Metro Rail cars, the TSA will team with NFTA Police and the Buffalo Police Department to conduct the screenings.

NFTA Executive Director Lawrence Meckler said he doesn't expect any significant disruption for Metro Rail passengers as they make their daily commutes.

"The train schedules will stay the same. No one should be overly inconvenienced," Meckler said. "The whole idea of doing the pilot program is to test the feasibility of incorporating this type of screening into our regular security efforts."

Regional TSA officials are hoping to make a case for permanent ground transportation screening in the Buffalo area based on proximity to the Canadian border, and the key local infrastructure, including the Niagara Power Project.

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

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