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Rail security drill involves 150 Amtrak stations

(The following story by Matthew L. Wald appeared on the New York Times website on September 24.)

NEW YORK — Amtrak and the Transportation Security Administration deployed officers from about 100 local police departments to 150 train stations in 13 states and the District of Columbia during the morning rush on Tuesday in a drill to familiarize law enforcement personnel with the rail system and to practice working together. An Amtrak spokesman said some travelers were asked for identification and some were told to open their bags for inspection.

In many cases, the exercise meant mostly that more police officers were present in Amtrak and commuter rail stations, although some commuters may not have noticed. In some stations, police dogs were present.

Officials said the drill, along the Northeast corridor from Virginia to Vermont, was not in response to any threat, but was meant to demonstrate how the authorities could respond to one, or to an actual attack. Participating agencies included police departments from small jurisdictions, like Kingston, R.I., and Old Saybrook, Conn., Linden and Metuchen, N.J., Lower Merion, Pa., and Harpers Ferry, W.Va., as well as from big cities, including Boston, New York, Philadelphia and Washington.

At Union Station in Washington, a few blocks from the Capitol, there was a noticeable increase in the security presence. Transportation Security Administration officers who said they were ordinarily assigned to Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport stood near a busy Starbucks, watching passengers who had just arrived on an Acela from New York. “It’s national rail security day,” one officer said cheerily, as if it were a new holiday. He said he was not authorized to give his name to the press.

But the security arrangements were low-key. An Amtrak police officer surprised passengers in a waiting area by quietly asking them to show her their tickets. Several passengers arriving on a southbound train said they had noticed nothing unusual at either end of their journeys.

A spokesman for the Transportation Security Administration, Christopher White, said some of the law enforcement personnel were in plain clothes, and some of the deployments were a few minutes in one station, a few minutes on a train and a few minutes in another station.

Participants drilled on a variety of tasks, he said, including looking for bombs near the periphery of train stations, where crowds might flee after an explosion within the station. Attacks on mass transit in Madrid and London involved bombs that exploded more or less simultaneously, not sequentially, but, Mr. White said, “We need to prepare for scenarios we haven’t seen in the past.”

“Having the local police get involved intimately with Amtrak and T.S.A. is a great force multiplier,” he said.

At Amtrak’s security office, Edward S. Phillips, the deputy for operations, said that 121 law enforcement agencies had promised to participate but that it was possible that some did not. “If you’ve got four duty cops in your town and there’s a fire, then you’ve got to go to that and you don’t show up,” he said.

But he said that as a result of this drill, “If we were to receive information of a credible threat, we could mount something like this within 12 hours, maybe even faster.”

Future drills, he said, would include undercover agents acting in ways that should arouse the suspicion of the police.

The Amtrak police chief, John O’Connor, said in a statement that “without question, this operation provided the longest wall of security ever mobilized along the East Coast.”

Darnell Donahue, who was boarding a train to Boston at Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan on Tuesday morning, said, “It doesn’t necessarily make me feel any safer, but it doesn’t hinder my feeling one way or the other about taking the train.” He added that the effort was good for the “peace of mind” of tourists or visitors as much as anything.

But at the American Civil Liberties Union, Barry Steinhardt, director of the group’s technology and liberty program, said sending police officers to ask for identification “may be interfering with the right to travel, which is constitutionally protected.”

“What do you do if someone refuses to present identification?” he said. “Prevent them from getting on a train?”

He added, “You have to ask yourself if this isn’t just security theater.” A would-be bomb planter who saw the police stopping travelers could simply walk to a different station or a different entrance to the same station, he said. “The train system is just too wide open for this to be effective.”

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

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