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Senate reviews railroad security

(The Washington Times posted the following article by Tom Ramstack on its website on March 16.)

WASHINGTON -- Nearly $1.3 billion would be spent on rail security under federal legislation introduced since the Madrid train bombings last week.

The money would include $515 million in fiscal 2005 for more surveillance of rail facilities and closer monitoring of passengers.

The senators who introduced the legislation are seeking an additional $777 million to pay for railroad tunnel safety improvements, including $40 million for the Amtrak tunnel running under the Supreme Court and Capitol Hill offices to Union Station.

"The harsh truth is that our passenger rail system is far from safe and unless we do something about it and do it quickly, we could suffer a similar or even worse fate," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat.

Thursday's Madrid train bombings killed 200 passengers with simultaneous explosions on commuter trains approaching downtown stations. More than 1,500 passengers on four trains were injured by the bombs concealed in backpacks.

"If we don't use this tragic event in Madrid as a wake-up call and start investing in rail security, in my opinion, we are making a tragic mistake," Mr. Biden said.

The proposed legislation for fiscal 2005 would order the Homeland Security Department to assess terrorism risks of railroads and to develop strategies for protecting passengers and infrastructure.

Part of the money would be given to Amtrak, commuter railroads and freight railroads as security grants.

Other provisions would ask the Homeland Security Department to study the possibility of screening passengers, baggage and cargo on Amtrak trains.

The separate proposal for tunnels would spend $667 million to improve fire, ventilation and other emergency systems in six New York tunnels. The Baltimore and Potomac Tunnel outside of Baltimore's Penn Station would get $57 million.

Specific surveillance techniques and how passengers would be more closely monitored are part of what the Homeland Security Department would be ordered to determine under the Senate proposal.

The new emphasis on rail security also responds to criticism from the railroad industry, which has warned since the September 11 terrorist attacks that the emphasis by Congress on aviation security overlooked vulnerabilities of the rail system.

However, federal officials in charge of transportation security say maintaining security on the nation's vast rail network creates unique problems.

The "open" nature of passenger rail means "it is difficult and challenging to have a 100 percent secure guarantee of safety," Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of homeland security, said yesterday on CBS' "The Early Show."

He also has dismissed the idea of searching all rail passengers as impractical.

Bill Ghent, spokesman for Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a Delaware Democrat who co-sponsored the rail bill, said less-intrusive security methods are available. They could include computerized searches of passenger financial records for suspicious transactions and greater use of bomb-sniffing dogs.

He said money for rail security could be diverted from other parts of the Homeland Security Department's budget, which is $30.4 billion this year.

"That would be up to the appropriators," Mr. Ghent said. "It's a matter of setting priorities."

Amtrak is spending less than $50 million on security this year. Commuter railroads and other urban rail systems often fund their security jointly with local police departments.

"It would be virtually impossible to duplicate the kind of controlled access that airlines are able to employ," Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

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