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Part 2: Las Vegas train safety derailed

(The following report by George Knapp appeared at LasVegasNow.com on July 8.)

LAS VEGAS — Homeland Security officials consider Las Vegas to be among the top ten targets of foreign terrorist in the U.S. A still-classified report prepared for the state shows that one of the most tempting and vulnerable terror targets in southern Nevada is the downtown Union Pacific rail yard.

The I-Team has possession of a switch key. With the key, you can change the track that a train is on and send it anywhere you want to send it. You'd think this key would be locked up tight, but it wasn't.

The fact that we have it is part of a larger and more disturbing picture about security -- or the lack thereof -- at the Union Pacific facilities here in the valley. It's reasonable to assume that terrorists know this as well.

"There you go. Pull right in there -- right ahead," We didn't need a former railroad employee to guide us into the Union Pacific yard, because it isn't hard to do. But we took one along for one of our visits.

In a dozen incursions at the U.P. yards over a three week period, we never saw closed gates, never saw a security guard and were never once stopped by anyone from the railroad wondering what we were doing there.

No one seemed to mind that we drove right along side the parked rail cars or even as we circled Union Pacific's main building again and again.

"You could drive around this lot for the next hour. Nobody is going to say nothing," said the former employee.

Security is not the railroad's strong suit, even though federal inspectors found serious deficiencies in the downtown rail yard five years ago.

U.P. has its own police force, but reportedly has five or fewer officers for the entire state.

A Homeland Security study characterized the Las Vegas rail yard as one of the most critical, yet vulnerable, facilities in Nevada. Tons of potentially deadly cargo rolls thru every day, often sitting unguarded on the tracks for hours or days: explosives, toxic gases and poisons -- weapons of mass destruction that have been pre-positioned next to hotels and population centers.

Clark County Planner Irene Navis has an office that overlooks the yard, "I've actually not seen security in the vicinity of this building."

Navis worries about the future when highly radioactive nuclear waste might ride the rails thru Nevada. But by talking about the risks, are we planting ideas in the heads of terrorists?

"They already have the ideas. It's very clear. They already have the ideas," she said.

Since the airliner attacks of 9/11, terrorists have turned their attentions to trains. Nearly 200 died in the Madrid explosions in 2004, dozens more in 2005 bombings in London. Al Qaeda has already monitored websites concerning the vulnerability of nuke waste shipments.

The ubiquitous graffiti on a majority of rail cars is a hint of what someone could do with a bomb instead of a paint can.

"If I have a tanker car and it's covered completely with graffiti, what does that tell you about security? If they can get there with a spray paint can, how much harder would it be to put a small IED and just attach it to a car, and it could go off in 10 minutes. It could go off in 10 hours," said Dr. Dale Carrison with the Nevada Homeland Security Commission.

Union Pacific says it is always working to improve security -- that its conductors stay on the lookout for suspicious activity, but that there's no way to secure thousands of miles of track.

So what about something as simple as fencing around the most vulnerable spots like the downtown rail yard? "Again, with the fencing, it's not something that is logistically possible because so much of our right of way is open," said Union Pacific spokesperson Zoe Richmond.

Railroad employees who requested anonymity said security around Las Vegas facilities is all but non-existent. We asked one of them the significance of a switch key we acquired a month ago, an item no one seems to be searching for. The simple key could create a mega-disaster.

"That is supposed to be one of their most protected things, because with that switch key, you can derail a train. You can create a catastrophe that would be greater than the World Trade Center Disaster in New York," said the employee.

According to one study, the derailment of a chlorine tanker downtown could kill 90,000 people. On our final visit to the rail yard, we encountered a Federal Railroad Inspector, the only one assigned to cover Nevada.

Tomorrow we will hear from three members of Nevada's Congressional Delegation about what, if anything, is being done to improve safety and security at the U.P. yards.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

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