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Mich. passengers react to Amtrak's random inspections

(The following story by Ken Kolker appeared on The Grand Rapids Press website on February 20.)

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — A long line of passengers prepared to climb aboard Amtrak's Pere Marquette passenger train bound for Chicago this morning, most dragging luggage.

The line was down to nothing in almost no time, and the train left the station on schedule.

Some passengers wonder if Amtrak's newly announced plans to randomly inspect luggage will lead to longer, slower lines to board trains, more delays on the already oft-delayed system and, ultimately, higher ticket prices.

"But it's all right," said passenger Stu Vollmer, 53, of Grand Rapids, as he waited in the train depot before the Pere Marquette arrived Wednesday morning. "It's a weird world. It's getting to be a weirder world every day."

It isn't clear when the new security measures will reach Chicago and Grand Rapids. Amtrak announced it would begin on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, then expand to the rest of the country.

Teams of inspectors will show up unannounced at stations, set up baggage screening areas at boarding gates and randomly pull people out of line. They will wipe their bags with an explosive-detection swab. If it detects anything suspicious, officers will thoroughly check the bag.

Also, counter terrorism officers with bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms, walk through trains and sometimes ride them, Amtrak officials said.

Some passengers headed to Chicago on Wednesday said they understood the need for security, as long as rail travel doesn't become as cumbersome as air travel. Amtrak officials insisted it would not lead to delays.

Train bombings killed 191 people in Madrid in 2004, 52 people in London in a series of blasts in 2005 and 200 people in Mumbai, India, the following year, raising concerns about Amtrak security.

However, some local passengers questioned how much need there is, since terrorists are more likely to target an aircraft over a train.

"The airline industry is a bigger target because it (a plane) can take out more than a train," said Michael Cooke, 41, of Chicago, who was returning to the Windy City after a business trip to the Grand Rapids area.

Still, Cooke welcomed at least some level of security.

"There are many open spaces along the way, " he said. "There are no security standards like they have in the airline industry."

Cindy Dekruyter, who was traveling with a half-dozen co-workers to a dental seminar in Chicago, said she thought about security and how easy it would be for a terrorist to sneak a bomb in luggage. "Trains and buses are like sleeper transportation," she said. "They could be targeted."

Co-worker Callie Siwarga had a bigger concern. "I personally would be more concerned about my safety in the train station," she said.

Vollmer, who was traveling to Chicago Wednesday morning on business, expects ticket prices to climb. "Every time you add a layer of government, you add a layer of costs," he said.

He hopes to keep getting the kinds of deals he got Wednesday -- $13.50 for the ride to Chicago, $1 for a commuter train ticket to Midway airport, and $49 for the flight to Los Angeles.

Despite the inconveniences, he said, he refuses to fly out of Grand Rapids' Gerald R. Ford International Airport, which would be a lot less hassle. "Flying out of Grand Rapids is too expensive," he said.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

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