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Editorial: Amtrak security overdue

(The following editorial appeared on the Philadelphia Inquirer website on February 21.)

PHILADELPHIA — Boosting security on mass transit has been an urgent concern ever since the terrorist train bombings in Madrid that killed 191 people in March 2004.

So it's troubling that it took years for Amtrak to launch a new strategy to combat attacks.

The good news is that, starting this week, travelers on Amtrak's busy Northeast corridor trains running through Philadelphia should be better protected - probably without missing their trains due to security delays.

Amtrak's move toward mobile, 15-member teams of armed police conducting random checks looks like a smart approach. It's modeled on New York City's random checks on its sprawling subway system, and it has passed constitutional tests.

The strategy's twin tactical virtues are its unpredictability - aimed at keeping the bad guys off-balance - and its flexibility, meant to minimize travel delays.

Using bomb-detecting procedures will ramp up Amtrak's scant security measures. Combined with limited ID checks and beefed-up police at 30th Street Station and elsewhere, the new strategy offers added defense.

The smartest move, of course, was what Amtrak chose not to do: that is, installing airport-style metal detectors at the doors to all its stations. That would cripple rail service with delays, just as train travel is enjoying a renaissance as a convenient and energy-wise alternative to the hassle of flying.

Even though Amtrak may have to continue its perennial funding fight during the political tug-of-war in Washington, it certainly shouldn't commit suicide by moving to onerous security.

While the extra safeguards may be very late in coming, at least they're here before any attack against U.S. train travelers occurred. It's a stark reminder, though, of the work yet to be done to safeguard citizens.

Air travelers benefit from billions spent by government on security over six-plus years. That's understandable. But Washington has been far less willing to invest what's needed for ground travel.

It took until last summer for Congress and President Bush to authorize funding to put in place security recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission, including $1.2 billion by 2011 for Amtrak. Even so, the American Public Transportation Association believes it would take $6 billion in safety measures to protect all riders.

Amtrak's security steps are welcome. But the nation can no longer rely on would-be terrorists heeding the same timetable as the slow rollout of security measures.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

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