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Opinion: Railroad security is a late arrival

(The following column by Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.) appeared on the Newsday website on March 27. Rep. Thompson is chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee.)

NEW YORK — The announcement that federal security teams will patrol trains and stations on the Long Island Rail Road and Metro-North is long overdue.

The teams — including air marshals and other federal agents — will cooperate with state and local police. Some details on the protective assignments are being withheld for security reasons, and such matters as how the costs are to be distributed are yet to be worked out, pending passage of a bill by the House and Senate. The bill is to be debated on the House floor today.

The LIRR and Metro-North are among the busier commuter lines in the nation. The LIRR alone, with more than 700 miles of track between Montauk and Penn Station, carries an average of 282,400 passengers a day. In the mind of a terrorist, you can't get a better target than the LIRR in terms of the potential number of lives lost and the economic impact.

Deploying federal agents using certified canine teams may be necessary on other railroads as well. There are more than 300,000 miles of freight rail and 10,000 miles of commuter rail in this country. All are virtually unsecured. Every day 11.3 million passengers use rail and other mass transit.

A RAND Corp. database of worldwide terrorist incidents between 1995 and June 2005 showed there were more than 250 attacks against rail targets, resulting in almost 900 deaths and some 6,000 injuries.

Even with these startling statistics, nothing was done to address this gaping hole in our security.

Last month, we were reminded that rail and other mass-transit systems are prime targets for terrorists. On Feb. 19, a train headed for Pakistan burst into flames after bombs exploded onboard near New Delhi, India. At least 64 people were killed in what was considered an attempt to undermine relations between India and Pakistan.

News of this most recent attack on a commuter rail system weighs heavily on me. This month marks the third anniversary of the Madrid bombings, which took 191 lives and injured 1,800. In July we will mark the second anniversary of the London bombings that killed 52 and injured 700, and the first anniversary of the Mumbai blasts that killed 165.

We must secure our nation's rail and mass-transit systems. Unless we put a priority on securing these modes of transportation, it is only a matter of time before we learn the lessons of Mumbai, London, Madrid and now New Delhi.

There have been many failed attempts to secure this critical transportation system. The 9/11 Act passed in 2004 directed the Transportation Security Administration to develop a national strategy, but the TSA failed to develop a comprehensive strategy. The president directed the Department of Homeland Security three years ago to complete a transportation-sector-specific plan, which should have outlined the Department of Homeland Security's strategy for rail and mass transit security. This plan has yet to be completed.

In December, the president issued an executive order directing the department to strengthen surface transportation security. Yet, in the fiscal year 2008 budget, the president requested only an additional $4 million for TSA's surface transportation budget.

This would bring TSA's entire surface transportation budget to less than 1 percent of the amount the president requested for aviation security.

We cannot continue to ignore the writing on the wall. Despite Wednesday's announcement about LIRR and Metro-North protection, our rail systems are vulnerable and immediate action must be taken to better secure them.

The government will have to make decisions later on such issues as priorities for protective assignments. But first, any outstanding issues must be worked out between the House and Senate. Bringing to the House floor the Rail and Public Transportation Security Act of 2007 is the culmination of months of hard work - much of it done by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford), the ranking Republican on our committee.

Vulnerability assessments and security plans should be mandated to provide increased security and piece of mind to the 11.3 million men and women who ride our nation's rail and mass-transit systems daily. Training and exercises should be mandated to ensure that our nation's front-line rail and mass transit employees have the proper tools to respond if a terrorist attack occurs. The first minutes after an incident are critical. Proper training could mean the difference between life and death.

Terrorists have repeatedly demonstrated that transportation systems are targets, and this notice must not be ignored. History will judge us if we don't act now.

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

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