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Amtrak security is visibly on track

(The following story by Mimi Hall appeared on the USA Today website on July 11.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Passengers at Union Station file briskly past the Amtrak ticket taker, eying the platform where the 4 p.m. Acela waits to take them to New York City and other points north.

Periodically, an armed agent steps forward to pull one of them out of the steady march to the train and directs the passenger to a security area where other agents are scanning bags for explosives.

A few people look mildly irritated at the inconvenience — but most don't seem to mind.

"I'm delighted," said passenger Linda Rhodes, a pharmaceutical industry businesswoman heading for New Jersey's Metropark station on a recent Wednesday afternoon.

She said she appreciated seeing the agents on the platform as a deterrent to terrorists who might be planning to bomb a train because "they're going to strike where no one's looking."

That's the idea behind Amtrak's new security push — to let the bad guys know that the nation's train stations and rail cars aren't the open, easy targets they once were.

Since February, a new team of highly trained and heavily armed counterterrorism agents has been working Amtrak's East Coast stations considered to be the highest threat for terrorist attack. They show up without warning and ask passengers to present their bags to be scanned with explosive detection equipment.

Each scan — which involves swabbing the bags and sending them through a machine that can pick up explosive residue — takes about 15 seconds, and the passenger is sent on his or her way to grab a seat on the train.

If a scan comes up positive, agents hand-search a bag. They have never found a bomb.

What's more likely is that "someone went shooting the day before" and ended up with explosive residue on his clothing or bag, Amtrak police officer Jim Cook said.

No trains are held up for the security scans; passengers aren't required to show up earlier than they would otherwise.

No one has yet refused to have a bag scanned out of thousands of trainloads screened since February.

"We've never had anyone decline — not one" since the program started, said Joe Crane, leader of the mobile counterterrorism teams.

In Washington and New York City, people overwhelmingly welcome the sweeps, he said. "They haven't forgotten" what happened on 9/11.

This fall, Amtrak will expand its $10-million-a-year counterterrorism explosives-screening program to the West Coast, with the addition of a 19-member mobile unit that will check passengers at random in stations from San Diego and Los Angeles to San Jose and Oakland.

The East Coast team is made up of 37 agents and officers, all trained to work the explosive-detection equipment, handle incidents SWAT-team-style and work undercover.

Some agents ride the trains undercover while they look out for suspicious passenger behavior. One agent has been known to pose as a real estate broker and talk about contracts and closings on his cellphone while riding the train; another posing as a homeless man has been kicked out of Washington's Union Station after pretending to sleep on a bench while he scanned the crowd in a waiting area.

Douglas Davison, an Amtrak agent for five years, said passengers sometimes get nervous when team members show up carrying huge guns and wearing helmets, bulletproof vests and heavy black boots.

Sometimes they approach "sheepishly and ask if everything's OK," he said. Agents reassure them that there's no threat against their train — just a routine security show of force, he said.

Critics question whether Amtrak's effort really improves security.

"For what we're spending and asking people to put up with, we're not buying much in terms of additional security," said John Reinstein of the American Civil Liberties Union's Boston office.

Although signs at the ticket window and a continuously running video in the waiting area let people know they could face random screening, some passengers are surprised to encounter security checks at train stations.

Diane Salamon, 53, of Tulsa, who was traveling from Washington, D.C., to Philadelphia said she doesn't mind airport security checks and is happy to comply with a check to board a train as well.

"I don't have a problem with it," she said. "It's important for our national security."

John Ercolani, an insurance broker from Iselin, N.J., who had his bag scanned said he didn't have a problem with the check either.

He was a bit baffled by the whole thing, though. "I'm not really sure why they singled me out," he said with a laugh. "I guess I look suspicious."

Friday, July 11, 2008

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