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Congress addresses risks of terrorist attacks against railroads

(AllHeadlineNews.com circulated the following story on April 22, 2010.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. — A government watchdog report Wednesday urged changes to the way the Transportation Security Administration protects the nation’s railroads from terrorism risks.

The TSA has focused most of its budget on airline security since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks but is under growing pressure from Congress to protect railroads as well.

The TSA has developed successful new rail security strategies in the past four years but still needs “targeted, outcome-oriented performance measures” to “enable TSA to better monitor the effectiveness of these strategies and programs that support them,” said the report from the Government Accountability Office.

The TSA also needs to do a better job of balancing its airline and railroad security priorities and sharing intelligence information with other agencies, the report said.

Railroad security has become a higher priority for the federal government after President Barack Obama announced $8 billion in grants in February to begin building a nationwide network of high-speed passenger rail systems.

In addition, intelligence reports indicate al-Qaeda operatives are shifting their bomb targets to trains as the world clamps down on airline security. One of the attacks was planned to blow up New York City subway trains last September.

It was averted when FBI agents became suspicious of the Afghani immigrant who was making the bombs and scouting out targets in New York. He pleaded guilty to the charges in February and was sentenced to life in prison.

The American Public Transportation Association is asking Congress for an additional $1.1 billion to fund security systems for public transit alone. Witnesses at the Senate hearing said other funding is needed for freight railroads and pipelines.
Terrorist bomb attacks in recent years have killed hundreds of train passengers in Madrid, London, Moscow and Mumbai, India.

The Moscow bombing was the most recent. It occurred last month when suicide bombers detonated two bombs on separate trains.

Unlike airlines, the extensive U.S. rail system and the easy access to it by the public makes it difficult to protect, according to witnesses at the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing Wednesday.

“In the United States, the surface transportation system includes more than 100,000 miles of rail, 600,000 bridges, more than 300 tunnels and two million miles of pipeline,” said Stephen M. Lord, the GAO’s director of homeland security and justice issues.

The risks can only grow as the federal government builds new rail systems with passenger trains that can travel as much as 220 mph, according to transportation industry officials.

The $8 billion in grants announced by Obama in February are intended as seed money to begin a high-speed passenger rail network that would rival the interstate highway system of the Eisenhower administration. The first systems are planned for California, Florida and Illinois.

Other risks are posed by freight trains that carry deadly materials through urban areas where a ruptured tank car could kill thousands within minutes if a gas such as chlorine escaped.

The TSA has identified tank cars as being vulnerable to “improvised explosive devices” (IEDs) that could be detonated by terrorists as trains pass.

IEDs also pose the greatest risk for Amtrak, John O’Connor, the railroad’s police chief, said in his testimony.

“Explosives are clearly the preferred tactic,” O’Connor said. “Of the total attacks on public surface transport, 74 percent were either explosive or incendiary in nature. When passenger rail was the target, the number jumps to 83 percent.”

The other most likely threat is a gunman, he said.

Amtrak’s security efforts have included doubling the size of its bomb-sniffing dog unit to 45 teams, random baggage screening and security guards trained to watch for suspicious behavior.

O’Connor said Amtrak lets “our risk assessments drive security investments.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

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