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Amtrak outlines security features

(The following story by Paul Nussbaum appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on February 20.)

PHILADELPHIA Amtrak's new 15-member security teams, heavily armed and "exceedingly polite," will show up in force this week at Northeast rail stations, trying to secure a system that is inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack.

The new security measures, including random searches of ticket holders before they board, are designed to balance safety and convenience, Amtrak officials said yesterday. Unlike air travelers, train passengers will not be required to walk through metal detectors or take off their shoes, and trains will not be delayed by the searches.

The centerpiece of the inspection strategy will be a portable explosive-residue detector. About the size of a loaf of bread, the tabletop detector will be set up in stations, and passengers will be randomly selected for inspection, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said yesterday. Inspectors will wipe a piece of specially treated material over luggage and put the swab into the reader. If the meter displays a positive reading, the luggage will be opened for inspection.

A passenger who declines to submit to inspection will not be permitted to board. Those who refuse to open their luggage after a positive reading may be subject to additional penalties, Black said.

Between 1995 and 2005, there were more than 250 terrorist attacks against rail targets worldwide, resulting in nearly 900 deaths. Deadly terrorist bombings on trains in Madrid, London and Mumbai since 2004 have demonstrated the hazards associated with rail systems, with their open boarding, frequent stops, and large passenger loads.

Those attacks "highlight the vulnerabilities of passenger rail systems and make clear that even when security precautions are put in place, these systems remain vulnerable to attack," the U.S. Government Accountability Office concluded in a report to Congress last year.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) acknowledged in a recent report that "a potential terrorist attack on public transportation systems can result in a large number of victims, thereby achieving its desired effect. . . . Terrorists choose high-visibility targets with high casualty potentialities and opportunities for captivating images of fires, smoke, wrecked vehicles, and bloodied passengers."

Amtrak devised its new security measures in cooperation with the TSA and Homeland Security Department officials, and after consulting with transit-security officials in Israel, Madrid, London and New York City. In addition to random inspections, Amtrak's measures will include bomb-sniffing dogs on trains and platforms and police with submachine guns on platforms, Black said.

"It's a show of force," Black said, designed to intimidate and deter would-be terrorists. He said the security teams would be "exceedingly polite and businesslike."

Even with automatic weapons and random inspections, though, trains can't be made as secure as planes.

"You can't have the hermetically sealed kind of screening you have in aviation," Black said. "The architecture of ground transportation is an open architecture. It's so different than aviation."

"We don't want to interfere with that marketing advantage we have over aviation," he said. "Passengers don't have to get [to a train station] long in advance."

Trains won't be delayed to accommodate the security measures, Amtrak officials said. If a train is about to depart, inspections will stop and passengers will be permitted to board immediately.

At 30th Street Station yesterday, passengers generally welcomed the heightened security.

"It's about time," said Jeff Goldberg, of Lower Merion. "Would it be an inconvenience if it occurred to me? Absolutely. If it does occur, I'll be very upset and saying to myself, 'The terrorists have won, here I am being stopped.' But better that than the other alternative."

Commuter rail systems, including SEPTA, NJ Transit and PATCO, also have increased security since the 2001 terrorist attacks. NJ Transit, like New York City public transit, conducts random luggage searches on trains and buses similar to the inspections now planned by Amtrak.

"It's just one tool in a toolbox for us as we look at security," said Dan Stessel, a spokesman for NJ Transit. He said the goal was to provide safety "without causing disruption for our passengers, and based on our experience, we've achieved that."

SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker said: "We have been on a heightened state of alert since 9/11. We have bomb-detection equipment and canine teams, but we're not at this point stepping up security further. . . . It would cause excessive delays."

PATCO announced last month that it would begin installing "intelligent" security cameras at stations, platforms and parking lots in April. The $4 million installation is funded partly by a grant from the Homeland Security Department. Under the Homeland Security Department's transit-grant program, Philadelphia received $5.9 million last year and $25.8 million between 2003 and 2006.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

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