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SEPTA: No plans to start bag searches

(The following story by Brian Scheid appeared on the Bucks County Courier Times website on February 20.)

PHILADELPHIA — SEPTA officials have no plans to start randomly searching passengers' bags even though Amtrak announced Tuesday it would do so; and passenger bags on NJ Transit trains and buses have been randomly searched for years as part of a counter-terrorism effort.

Amtrak officials announced Tuesday that armed guards and bomb-sniffing dogs will now patrol station platforms and trains and passengers' carry-on bags will be randomly searched as part of an effort to beef up security.

Officials with NJ Transit launched a similar baggage search effort in July 2005 after 52 people were killed in a series of terrorist blasts on London trains and buses, but SEPTA won't be conducting such searches, according to SEPTA spokesman Jim Whitaker.

“We don't think it's necessary at this point,” Whitaker said Tuesday.

Bucks County Commissioner Charley Martin, a member of SEPTA's board of directors, said random bag searches might be considered if the transit agency received information about a terrorist threat, but said those searches would accomplish little now.

“I think that might be an unnecessary intrusion on the SEPTA system,” Martin said.

The searches would cause “extensive delays” and would likely be a costly and ineffective effort for SEPTA's uniformed and undercover police officers who already patrol SEPTA trains and buses, Whitaker said.

“It's just too cumbersome for our system,” he said.

NJ Transit spokesman Dan Stessel said his agency's random bag searches have had “no impact on train or bus operations.”

Jose Rodriguez, who was waiting at the Levittown train station in Tullytown for a SEPTA train to Philadelphia, said random bag searches might be needed.

“It could be a good idea,” Rodriguez said. “You never know what people carry in their bags these days.”

About a half-dozen other SEPTA commuters at that station Tuesday afternoon said they oppose random searches because they'd delay their commutes. All declined to give their names.

As with Amtrak's new policy, passengers on NJ Transit trains and buses have the right to refuse to have their bags searched. If they refuse, they won't be allowed to board and will be given a refund for their trip, Stessel said.

NJ Transit police have found illegal fireworks during bag searches, but Stessel said the searches work more as a “deterrent” for potential terrorists.

“The fact that it's random adds a level of uncertainty to anyone who would want to do harm to our system,” Stessel said. “It's another tool in our tool box that we're able to use if threat levels change.”

SEPTA has 10 police units with bomb-sniffing dogs and is installing $90 million in security upgrades, including new surveillance cameras, alarms and emergency lighting, Whitaker said.

In a statement Tuesday, Alex Kummant, Amtrak's president and chief executive officer, said the random bag searches and new “mobile security teams [would] strengthen Amtrak's overall security, and they are vital in our efforts to deter, detect, and prevent a terrorist incident on the rail system.”

Cornwells Heights in Bensalem is the only Amtrak stop in Bucks County.

Fears of a terrorist attack on a train began after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 and have grown since commuter and subway trains have been bombed in Madrid, London and Mumbai, India.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

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