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America's risky rails

(The following story by Amanda Ripley is from the March 22 edition of Time Magazine.)

NEW YORK -- Anyone who has boarded an Amtrak train since Sept. 11, 2001, must wonder how long the delusion can last. How easy it is to waltz into a teeming station 10 minutes before departure, pull your ticket from a machine and glide onto the train without any inspection of your ID or your bags. Your shoes are of no interest to anyone. It's as if Amtrak has been exempted from modernity, and all the fuzzy charm of taking the train remains untouched by time.

The tragedy in Madrid may have put an end to the railroad anachronism. The attack that killed some 200 innocents was cruelly simple. The perpetrators left backpacks full of explosives fitted with simple timers and walked away. "It's a load of rubbish to call it a sophisticated attack," says British security expert Michael Dewar. "You and I could do it." Some 10 million train and subway trips are taken every day in America. Amtrak shuttles 66,000 of those passengers, two-thirds of them through the target-rich northeast corridor. The Washington Metro moves 600,000 people near national monuments. What makes trains useful is what makes them devilishly hard to secure: many doors, high volumes of passengers and thousands of miles of lonely tracks. "I hear people saying it is virtually impossible to make public transport in the U.S. secure," says a former government railway official. "That's wrong. It is impossible."

That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course—but so far we haven't tried very hard. The Federal Government is spending $4.5 billion on aviation security this year but only $65 million on rail security—even though five times as many people take trains as planes every day. And if we understand one thing about terrorists, it's that they stick to what they know. Since 2000, bombs have gone off (or been defused) on railways in India, Russia, France, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Israel and Germany. Iyman Faris, a truck driver from Ohio who pleaded guilty last May to providing material support to al-Qaeda, told investigators that the organization wanted to derail a train near Washington. Other intelligence sources reported that al-Qaeda operatives had cased the Washington rail corridor and that some had discussed exploding a train near storage tanks for hazardous chemicals. In France, a shadowy group calling itself azf claims it has hidden 10 bombs around the country. The group demonstrated its credibility by suggesting investigators dig under a certain rail line; last month they found a small bomb powerful enough to derail a train.

Since 9/11, U.S. transit officials have made some changes. Amtrak and big-city subways have added police and dog units and removed some large, bomb-ready fixtures—like trash cans and vending machines. At Amtrak, names given by passengers are checked against various government watch lists (a spokesman declined to say which ones). Last week Amtrak upped security patrols and electronic surveillance of tracks, bridges and tunnels.

Government officials have considered using metal detectors to screen passengers but decided the cost and inconvenience would outweigh the benefits. "You can't just apply the aviation-industry solution," says Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Of course, judging from the record of the government's 45,000-strong airport-screening force, it's not a perfect system anyway. Weapons continue to pass by airport scanners, which still focus on metal—even though bombs can be made of plastic and other materials. Plus screeners are painfully human. Last year 1,200 screeners were fired after background checks revealed they had lied on their applications or had criminal histories.

The decision to prioritize airline security is understandable. The truth is, it's a lot harder to make trains as deadly as planes. "You can't turn a train into a missile," says Brian Jenkins, a transportation-security expert at the Rand Corp. "If we've driven terrorists from the sky to the ground, it would be an improvement." Reassuring, in a 21st century kind of way.

But the other harsh reality is that trains have always been the poor stepchild of the U.S. transportation system. A 2003 survey of transit agencies by the American Public Transportation Association identified some $6 billion in unmet security needs. And Amtrak can't do the job itself. Since the Sept. 11 attacks, it has boasted that it checks the IDs of passengers buying tickets at the counter—but it doesn't mention that passengers can skip the counter and buy tickets over the Internet and extract them from kiosks. In fact, about a quarter of Amtrak riders never show ID. Amtrak is also perennially in danger of going bankrupt. In 2002 Amtrak cut back on security so severely that there were sometimes only three officers guarding New York City's Penn Station, the New York Post reported. This is at a station used by half a million people a day. Local officials eventually called in the National Guard to assist.

A better model might be the Eurostar, which links London to Paris and Brussels. Passengers go through metal detectors, and all bags pass through X-ray machines. Of course, it's hard to imagine doing that for commuter trains—and inconceivable in, say, the New York City subway.

Democratic Senator Fritz Hollings of South Carolina introduced a bill last week to allot $515 million for risk assessments and security improvements for trains. Of course, he has introduced the bill twice before, and it has gone nowhere. Most likely, conductors worldwide will deputize passengers. "No one can see an unattended bag dumped in a train and figure, Ah, someone will come and pick it up," says a French security official. "Someone might; someone probably will. But if they don't, the consequences could be catastrophic." Say goodbye to lazy dreaming in the dining car.

(Reported by Bruce Crumley/Paris; Sally B. Donnelly, Viveca Novak and Elaine Shannon/Washington; and Helen Gibson/London)

Monday, March 15, 2004

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