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Security has left the station

(The following story by Jeremiah Stettler appeared on The Salt Lake Tribune website on July 22.)

SALT LAKE CITY, Utah ó Five men boarded the east-bound California Zephyr with a cardboard box containing $700,000 in savings bonds stolen from a western Nevada suburb and a scheme to launder the money in Chicago, authorities say.

They never got to Chicago. Their getaway ended 1,400 miles short when Amtrak kicked them off the train in Helper. All had smoked marijuana onboard, and one had entered a woman's cabin, rubbed her leg and masturbated in front of her, the victim and a crew member told The Salt Lake Tribune.

Police arrested the men without incident. But with threadbare security aboard Amtrak's long-haul trains, the situation could have ended much worse, said Amtrak personnel who spoke on condition of anonymity, fearing repercussions from their employer.

A Tribune investigation has found that security aboard Amtrak's long-haul trains is scanty at best, allowing potentially dangerous passengers on board with little consideration to who they are or what they might bring with them.

Not only were those five men carrying stolen savings bonds, three were wanted on felony warrants for theft, burglary and vehicular manslaughter in other states, according to federal court documents and interviews with the FBI.

The Tribune traveled more than 1,000 miles with Amtrak and witnessed no baggage checks, no passenger screening, few security officers and only sporadic
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ID checks - precautions that could safeguard passengers from onboard violence.

In addition, the United Transportation Union, which represents Amtrak conductors, said labor negotiations remain stalled with Amtrak because the company wants to change the staffing level aboard its trains. Instead of operating with a conductor and an assistant, Amtrak officials reportedly want the discretion to employ a single conductor, said UTU General Chairman Al Suozzo.

Amtrak officials would not comment on the negotiations, saying the union has "specifically requested" that the talks remain confidential.

Five Amtrak conductors, speaking independently and on condition of anonymity, said a staff reduction could put them and their passengers at risk.

"We can't do it with one person," said one conductor who told of being threatened once with with a knife and another time with a gun. With two people aboard, he said he can handle those situations. But with one, he doesn't think so.

Utah's Amtrak ridership is served by the daily California Zephyr, which connects Chicago and San Francisco. The train makes stops in Salt Lake City, Provo, Green River and Helper.

A "remote" risk

On the morning of March 11, 2004, bombs detonated aboard four crowded commuter trains in Madrid, Spain. The explosives, hidden in sports bags, killed 191 people, wounded nearly 2,000 and highlighted the difficulty of passenger rail in guarding against terrorism. Investigators linked the Madrid attack to Islamic militants retaliating against Spain's military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Since then, U.S. passenger trains have deployed more bomb-sniffing dogs, hired more security officers, installed closed-circuit television to monitor stations and trains, increased employee training and limited access points, according to a U.S. Government Accountability Office's report released in February.

Yet passenger rail still has inherent vulnerabilities - thousands of miles of track, open access, high ridership - that could prove difficult to remedy, the report states.

While terrorists realistically could strike Amtrak trains in the bustling Northeast corridor, Robert Poole, director of transportation studies for the nonprofit think tank Reason Foundation in Los Angeles, said the possibility of terrorism on a long-haul train through Utah or Colorado is slim to none.

"Other than some degree of symbolic or iconic value, if you were looking to make a big splash, you wouldn't go after an Amtrak train," he said.

But terrorism isn't what worries Amtrak conductors out West. It's the security gaps that could allow violent passengers to board with inadequate staffing to stop them.

"These trains we operate travel into some very remote areas, miles away from any police, fire or other emergency crews," wrote one conductor. "In essence, the operating crew must act as each one of these until help arrives.

"We are amazed that an attack such as what took place in Spain or London has not come to fruition as yet. Although we remain diligent onboard the train, we are still undertrained, understaffed and lack security."

Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black insisted that passenger safety is a priority and said the railroad is stepping up security. Passenger ID checks are policy, he said, and random passenger and baggage screening likely will follow.

Black also said that plainclothes federal air marshals could soon monitor trains and stations at random.

"There is no specific threat against Amtrak trains - long-distance or otherwise," he said. "But the railroad is increasing its security activities on a constant, incremental basis in response to the realities of our times."

Security vs. safety

Bill Radke watched sunlight touch the Utah Valley as Amtrak chugged through Provo early one Thursday morning. He sat in the high-windowed observation car, his chair swivelled to the west.

He chuckled at questions about security. "We give up a lot of freedom and a lot of money for security that doesn't exist," he said.

Radke hadn't seen much security since leaving Reno, and he hoped it would stay that way. The moment government imposes airport-style security on the rails, he said, he'll stop riding.

Amtrak remains one of the few transportation systems that "treats you like a human being," he said.

Through the rugged Rocky Mountain canyons near Grand Junction, Colo., Bob and Nancy Doyle raved about the sightseeing. No one had checked their ID when they boarded en route to Chicago.

"There is no security to speak of," Nancy Doyle said.
But like most of the 100 passengers interviewed, the Doyles said they felt safe. They didn't see Amtrak as a target.

A Tribune survey found that most passengers observe little security when boarding or traveling Amtrak trains. Yet almost all riders said they felt "very safe" and likely would choose Amtrak again for cross-country travel.

The survey asked passengers to rank Amtrak's security on a five-point scale - 1 meaning no security at all, 5 meaning a high level of security. Passengers gave Amtrak a 2.9.

The same question was asked of passengers' personal feelings of safety - 1 meaning that riders didn't feel safe at all, 5 meaning that they felt very safe. Passengers gave Amtrak a 4.47.

The survey found that repeat passengers were more likely to give Amtrak a lower rating for security - a score that some passengers deemed positive. They also were more likely to say they felt "very safe" on the rails.

The problem passengers

On Feb. 27, a barefoot Amtrak passenger yanked the emergency-stop cord about 14 miles east of Flagstaff, Ariz., and jumped from the train.

He leapt off after reportedly striking a conductor's eye, which caused it to nearly swell shut, and throwing the attendant against the wall. Police later arrested him on the run.

The confrontation appears to be a rarity on the rails, according to a Tribune examination of about 270 passenger-removal logs between January 2006 and April 2007 in states west of Colorado.

Amtrak reported just eight assaults along its Western routes over that period - about 3 percent of the total.

Most of the assaults involved physical altercations. Some were sexual, such as an offense near Gallup, N.M., where an intoxicated man assaulted five female passengers in March and made sexual advances toward children.

The reports showed 23 incidents in which Amtrak ejected people for threatening other passengers.

An Amtrak spokesman characterized the findings as "statistically insignificant" for a passenger train that shuttled about 2 million people through Colorado, Utah, Idaho, Nevada and Arizona between 2006 and June 2007.

Onboard violence is a concern, spokesman Black said, but the occurrence of such spats is probably "lower than the frequency of such incidents among the general population."

Most of Amtrak's incidents included no violence at all, reports show.

In fact, most troublemakers were drunk. Amtrak reported 63 incidents when conductors had to kick intoxicated passengers off the train for disruptive behavior - about 23.5 percent of the total.

Next came smokers (10 percent) found puffing in passenger cabins and restrooms in violation of Amtrak policy.

About 5 percent of all incidents involved drug possession or theft. And three times, Amtrak had to oust passengers who removed their clothes in public areas on trains.

Amtrak labeled most of its incidents (32.8 percent) "disorderly conduct" and provided no other details about the riders' offenses.

"Amtrak does not tolerate unruly behavior on board its trains," Black said.

Dave Brzozowski, a Schenectady, N.Y., resident, lounged in the observation car as his train chugged eastward through the Utah desert. He didn't see much security, and like many passengers, he didn't want to. He felt perfectly safe.

"We're going too security nuts in this country," he said. "I would say the security is good enough."

Monday, July 23, 2007

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