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Opinion: What’s to stop terror on our tracks?

(The following column by Jim Cameron appeared on the Darien Times website on January 13, 2010.)

DARIEN, Conn. — The recent hysteria following the attempted bombing of a Northwest Airlines jet over Detroit has reminded us again of our vulnerability to terrorism. And not just in the air, but on our daily commute by train.

We’ve already seen that trains make attractive targets for bombers. After the Madrid bombings in March of 2004 and the London subway attacks in 2005, it is really only a matter of time before terrorism strikes such a vulnerable target as mass transit once again.

Our government has proven itself unable to protect the homeland, so seeing state troopers and police riding Metro-North trains seems like an act of PR, propping up public opinion, rather than acting as any deterrence.

According to the U.S. House Transportation Committee, since 9/11 we’ve spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger. In the same time we’ve only spent $115 million on mass transit, or 0.06˘ per passenger.

Homeland Security has tried some experiments in improving rail safety: On Amtrak, police (often with dogs) “show the colors” with a walk-through of Acela trains leaving Penn Station. Conductors also ask for passengers’ ID on a random basis. This is deterrence?

But their craziest experiment of all happened right here in Connecticut.

In July 2004, a Shore Line East train was outfitted with an extra car carrying bombing sniffing and metal detecting equipment (on loan from manufacturer GE, which is obviously eyeing lucrative contracts). Passengers boarding the train at all stations first had to enter the “security car” and as the train moved along, were screened for explosives. That’s right… they got on the train and then were screened. But isn’t the idea to keep the bombs off of the trains, not find them in transit?

What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways? In my view, not much.

There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and thousands of passengers to control. Consider some of the possibilities:

• ID checks before boarding? For what purpose — and of what deterrence value?

• Airport-style “secure zones” and screenings at stations? Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 to 90 minutes before departure to queue for pat-downs twice each day? They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.

• A cop on every train? Be honest: do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train? And with a 10-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car?

• Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train? Maybe. But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.

So what’s a commuter to do? In my view, rely on your own instincts. Be watchful of your surroundings, unattended bags and suspicious behavior. As they remind us: If you see something that doesn’t look right, say something.

Shortly after the Madrid bombings, I was on a Metro-North train headed into the city when a passenger came into my car, spoke softly with the conductor, and sat down. Two other passengers followed him, now speaking in more excited tones. They said there was a dark skinned man in the other car sweating profusely, looking at his watch, reading an Arabic newspaper and playing with something in his briefcase. The conductor radioed ahead and our train was stopped in the Bronx. MTA Police in body armor boarded and took the man off the train.

To my eye he looked like any other commuter. Sweating, perhaps because he’d run for the train. Looking at his watch, because he was late for an appointment. Fumbling with something in his briefcase, maybe to find his Blackberry. Reading a foreign newspaper, to catch up on the news in his native tongue. The gentleman looked Indian, not Arabic, but he offered no resistance when he climbed off the train.

Paranoia? Xenophobia? Or have our enemies really won and left us terrorized?

I’m still riding the train and taking the subways. But I don’t linger in Grand Central, a perfect target for a suicide bomber.

In all honesty, the debacle over the Detroit jet bombing attempt convinces me that our government can do nothing prevent the inevitable — further terrorist attacks right here in the US.

* * *

(Jim Cameron has been a Darien resident for 18 years. He is chairman of the Metro-North Commuter Council, a member of the Coastal Corridor Transportation Investment Area and the Darien Representative Town Meeting, but the opinions expressed here are his own.)

Thursday, January 14, 2010

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