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Anti-terror group rides passenger trains

(The following story by Tony Bizjak appeared on the Sacramento Bee website on February 4.)

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Federal anti-terrorism agents with guard dogs and cameras showed up at the downtown train depot briefly last week, then just as mysteriously disappeared, leaving passengers at the normally sleepy depot scratching heads.

The visitors were members of the Department of Homeland Security's VIPR squad.

It's a scary-sounding acronym. What it stands for, and what they were doing at the depot, however, is a bit less exciting.

The Visual Intermodal Protection and Response team rode some local trains and patrolled the I Street depot for two days as part of what officials say is a national effort to show that anti-terrorism agents pay attention to more than just airports.

VIPR teams are organized by the Transportation Security Administration, the agency best known for security checkpoints at airports.

The Sacramento VIPR exercise was not tied to any reported concern locally, federal officials said.

"There is no information to suggest there is any particular threat," TSA spokeswoman Lauren Wolf said.

The exercises are conducted around the country, she said, to help make the agency more nimble, and to send a message that anti-terrorism agents can show up anywhere at any time.

Wolf said agents inform local law enforcement but otherwise don't advertise their plans beforehand.

The feds did boast recently on the Internet about checking out crowds at transit stops around AT&T Park in San Francisco during Major League Baseball's 2007 All-Star game.

Vernae Graham, an Amtrak official in Oakland, said she saw them use helicopters in a recent exercise at the port there.

In Sacramento, the agency reportedly was more low-key, walking the aisles of some trains and standing on boarding platforms.

"They were friendly; they said, 'Have a good day,' " train passenger Chuck Robuck said.

Robuck said the Capitol Corridor and Amtrak trains are a lot more "open in terms of security" than airports, so, "I think it's good to have a presence."

But the only plotting going on lately he knows of are plans among passengers to throw an onboard St. Patrick's Day party commemorating longtime rider Bob Conheim, who recently died.

Gene Skoropowski, head of the Capitol Corridor system, which runs through Sacramento, said his agency was informed but was told little about the exercise.

He said he views it as a sign that trains – the Rodney Dangerfields of transportation – were getting a little respect.

"At least they recognize we are out there," Skoropowski said. "This shows they are concerned with all forms of transportation."

The federal Department of Homeland Security, which has been distributing annual security grants to transit agencies, said Friday it will make more funds available this year.

Regional Transit bus and light-rail officials in Sacramento recently won $1.2 million in grants and used them to install cameras at light-rail stations.

Federal officials announced they will give $25 million this year to Amtrak "to harden underground and underwater track and tunnels against IEDs" – which are typically homemade, booby trap-style bombs.

Some of that money also is earmarked by federal security officials to train "key rail employees in counter-terrorism, and expand visible deterrence activities."

Monday, February 4, 2008

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