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Rail line security monitoring approved

(The following article by Mary Beth Sheridan was posted on the Washington Post website on November 16.)

WASHINGTON -- Federal homeland security officials have won final approval for a project aimed at protecting a key section of D.C. rail line from terrorist attacks.

The National Capital Planning Commission signed off on the $10 million pilot project this month, allowing the Department of Homeland Security to begin installing scores of surveillance cameras and sensors along an eight-mile rail corridor, officials said.

The approval followed more than two years of planning and negotiations.

"We think it's a very, very good pilot project," said William Flynn, the federal department's director of risk management.

If the project works out, Flynn said, it might be replicated in other parts of the country.

The security system will be installed along a rail corridor that runs from the District's boundary with Virginia to its boundary with Maryland, near the Brentwood rail yard. It includes a spur that runs to Union Station, officials said. Freight trains as well as Virginia Railway Express and Amtrak passenger trains will be monitored.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, concern has grown about the possibility of terrorist bombings of passenger trains as well as terrorist strikes on rail cars carrying hazardous materials.

The pilot security project features about 150 surveillance cameras that will provide real-time video feeds of the area around the tracks to law enforcement and rail authorities, officials said. If an intruder is detected, strobe lights will flash and a warning will ring out in several languages.

The system also includes virtual "gates" that would identify trains and scan them for radioactive and toxic materials.

Authorities began planning the project in 2004, but the Department of Homeland Security had to do an environmental impact statement, negotiate memorandums of understanding and obtain approval from various agencies in the District before moving forward.

Among the last sticking points: The plan proposed using bright floodlights along certain parts of the track.

Planning commission and National Park Service representatives were concerned that the lights would bother residents and distract from Washington's monuments, said Eugene Keller, a project manager at the commission. Infrared lights were substituted, he said.

"We were the last group to see the final design, given all the tweaking that has occurred," Keller said. "Now they will implement it."

It will take up to a year to install the system, officials said.

The D.C. Council has been so concerned about the consequences of an attack on rail cars carrying hazardous chemicals that it prohibited such shipments within 2.2 miles of the Capitol. That ban, which was supposed to take effect in April 2005, was put on hold pending the result of a lawsuit by CSX Transportation Inc. and the U.S. government.

Officials from CSX, which owns rail lines through the city, say they have voluntarily rerouted shipments of hazardous cargo from tracks that run near the Capitol.

The planning commission is conducting a study to identify ways in which the rail line could be re-routed, to increase safety and better develop land near the city's monuments.

Although the pilot project will bolster security, Keller said, "we're still encouraging a more permanent solution in the context of hazardous materials traveling through the District of Columbia."

Thursday, November 16, 2006

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