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Security searches don't faze Amtrak passengers

(The following story by Ira Porter appeared on The News Journal website on February 21.)

WILMINGTON, Del. — Robert Russell wasn’t bothered today when he saw Amtrak police in Washington, D.C., randomly checking passengers’ bags on the station platform.

“I don’t think it bothered anyone,” Russell, 66, said at the Wilmington station. “It might have been slightly embarrassing, but I’d be OK with it if it happened to me.”
The railroad is counting on others feeling the same way.

To beef up security, Amtrak officials this week announced new security measures that include random screenings of carry-on bags and assigning officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs to patrol trains and platforms.

“I don’t know how effective it will be since they don’t have metal detectors,” said Russell, who is from Boston but catches the train to Wilmington to see friends.
Others at the Wilmington station today agreed that the new security measures are worth the inconvenience if it means feeling safe after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I saw the warnings when I was waiting for the train that said some people would be randomly selected,” said Jackie Masse, 23, who is from Maryland but rode the train to Wilmington to see friends. “I don’t want to be the person they pick, but I like seeing them around. It makes me feel safer.”

Amtrak officials said they already increased security after Sept. 11 and other world incidents, including a train bombing in Madrid that killed 191 people in 2004, a London train bombing that killed 52 in 2005, and a train blast in India that killed 200 in 2006. Those measures included increasing the number of officers, additional training and more cameras at specific locations.

The recent security measures, they said, are not in response to any recent threats against Amtrak.

“This has become so public because now the public will be more involved,” said Tracy Connell, an Amtrak spokeswoman.

Connell said the new process is random and that there are no criteria for picking people to be checked. The process should last no longer than a minute and consist of officers using a swab to check the exterior of passenger bags and running the swab through a device to check for bomb residue. If tests are positive, additional inspection will be required. If people refuse additional or initial searching, they will not be permitted to board trains, Connell said.

“I haven’t heard any complaints. I think anything that ensures the safety and security of our passengers is a good thing,” Connell said.

The sight of armed officers pacing train platforms with K-9s doesn’t sit well with some.

John Williams, an elevator technician who lives in New Castle County, caught a train today from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., to attend a convention.

”They walked the dogs up to a group of young people. There were four boys and three girls and they were all black. They had accents. They were standing on the platform with their bags and the officers walked up to them and just let the dogs sniff them,” said Williams, who also is black. “They didn’t check anyone else on the platform. That’s profiling.”

If the railway wants to be effective, why doesn’t it install metal detectors that would check everyone, Williams asked.

Connell, the railroad spokeswoman, said the selection process is random and denied that it is linked to profiling.

A passenger named Bill, who works in the financial service industry and catches the train to Wilmington once every three weeks, smirked at the possibility of delays created by the random security checks.

“I’m from New York. It’s not a big deal. When the train stopped in Philadelphia there was a cop with a machine gun and bomb-sniffing dog. They walked through the train and it was no big deal,” Bill said.

Friday, February 22, 2008

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