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Little can be done to protect rails, experts say

(The following article by Mimi Hall was posted on the USA TODAY website on March 15.)

WASHINGTON -- Commuters on the nation's trains and subways may hear announcements today asking them to report unattended packages or suspicious behavior. In some cities, they might see more police officers than usual, or bomb-sniffing dogs.

But most commuters probably won't see any big changes in response to Thursday's rush-hour train bombings in Madrid. Barring the development of a multibillion-dollar security system such as the one in place at the nation's airports, experts said, there's very little that can be done to protect the nation's vast system of tracks, stations and rail cars from determined terrorists.

The possibility that similar attacks will take place in the USA "concerns us, absolutely," said Asa Hutchinson, border and transportation security chief at the Department of Homeland Security. "We do know that al-Qaeda looks to hit us and hit us hard."

Transportation officials say they are doing what they can to tighten rail security.

Amtrak, for example, has increased police patrols at stations and along tracks, increased surveillance of tunnels and bridges, and encouraged its employees to watch for unattended bags and look out for anything suspicious. "That gives us an extra 20,000 sets of eyes out on the railroad," spokesman Dan Stessel said.

Riders of Washington's Metro subway cars are encouraged to watch for suspicious packages or behavior. They also might see explosives-detection teams patrolling stations.

But Metro officials acknowledged there's not a lot more they can do to fully protect 842 rail cars and 83 stations against terrorists.

After the Madrid bombing that killed 200 and wounded 1,500, the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation issued a bulletin Friday to states and the passenger-rail industry warning that "the U.S. rail sector has vulnerabilities which terrorists may choose to exploit in the future."

Officials said there is no information indicating an attack is imminent. But the bulletin said, "We have noted general terrorist intent to attack light rail and metro/subway systems. ... These targets have the potential for mass casualties and significant publicity."

Hutchinson said the $115 million in Homeland Security grants for rail security in the past year compared with more than $12 billion spent on aviation security since 2001 has gone mainly for fences and other security around train bridges and tunnels.

But passengers can still get on trains and subways nationwide without showing identification or having their bags checked. Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., a leading homeland security proponent, said Sunday that it might be time to put passenger and baggage screening in place for passenger trains. "The challenge of terrorism is that they strike at vulnerability," he told CNN.

"We're totally vulnerable," said Amtrak conductor Larry Lindbloom, who runs a daily route from San Diego to Los Angeles. "I don't know why it hasn't happened yet."

Hutchinson said putting a new security system in place for train travel has been considered and rejected by the department. "We can implement a system of security that is very, very comprehensive," he said. But it would cost billions of dollars. "Is that the right strategy? Our judgment at this point is that it is not."

That judgment might make some rail riders uneasy. But in New York City, where the Madrid bombings brought back painful memories of the Sept. 11 attacks, train passengers vowed not to change their routines.

"I won't let them win by making me afraid," said Holly Dreher, 36.

Rita Blumert, 79, was equally defiant. "I will not change my lifestyle to suit them," she said.

Monday, March 15, 2004

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