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Sen. Frank Lautenberg says focus on airline security overshadows passenger rail safety

(The following story by Herb Jackson appeared on The Record website on April 21, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Department of Homeland Security puts too much emphasis on airlines and not enough on transit, even though it carries more people every day and has been hit by terrorist attacks overseas in recent years, Sen. Frank Lautenberg said at a hearing Wednesday.

Lautenberg, D-N.J., criticized DHS and its Transportation Security Administration for missing a 2008 deadline for a comprehensive risk assessment on rail security, and repeated the 9/11 Commission’s criticism that government too often focuses on “fighting the last war.”

“Two million people get on planes every day, and 35 million get on transit,” Lautenberg said, including bus riders in the figure. He did not say exactly what he wanted DHS to do, but he wanted it to put more emphasis on transit.

“We’re absolutely dissatisfied with this,” Lautenberg, chairman of the Senate’s surface transportation subcommittee, told David Heyman, an assistant DHS secretary. “Get on the stick here, get going.”

Heyman said the overdue risk assessment, which would determine where the biggest security emphasis should be placed, is being reviewed by departments involved and could be released in several weeks if no major comments come in.

He said the department’s emphasis overall is on intelligence, deterrence and infrastructure protection, and it provides grant money to transit agencies for security enhancements.

For example, last year’s budget included $500 million for transit security grants. Heyman said that the New York/New Jersey area is a prime target, and regional systems over the years since 9/11 “received perhaps the greatest amount of funds as a result of that.”

NJ Transit’s acting police chief, Joseph Kelly, said his department has used federal grants to install more security cameras, radiation and explosive detectors, and technology to communicate with municipal, state and federal officials in an emergency.

“Our police officers receive counter-terror training now as part of their basic police training,” Kelly said. He noted, however, that despite a coming fare increase, NJ Transit has a hiring freeze and is eliminating more than 200 positions system-wide. No sworn police officers have been cut, he said.

“With these local funding challenges, federal operating support for security efforts has become even more critical,” Kelly said.

John J. O’Connor, the chief of police for Amtrak, said terrorism prevention focused on the threat of explosives on trains and in stations, and an emerging threat is the “active shooter scenario.”

He and Kelly both said during questioning from Lautenberg that they were briefed by TSA about a Moscow bombing about 12 hours after it happened. They had heard about it first through law enforcement security channels.

Lautenberg said TSA needed to be move involved.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

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