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Rail security raised, but task formidable

(The following report by Dave Orrick appeared on the Chicago Daily Herald website on March 16.)

CHICAGO -- You'll notice the yellow-jacketed workers roaming the CTA station. You probably won't notice the plain-clothed police reading the morning paper in the seat next to you.

But both new additions to the region's commuter rail experience are tasked with trying to make safe an inherently open - and thus vulnerable - way of getting around, here and throughout the country.

The Madrid train bombings have raised the level of vigilance and foreboding in hard-to-protect major U.S. rail systems, with more security announcements and patrols by armed police and sniffing dogs.

From New York to Washington, Chicago to San Francisco, last Thursday's attacks on commuters in the Spanish capital underscored U.S. officials' unease that trains and subway systems are too expansive and accessible to be secured like airports.

"You can't secure everything all the time, but you put plans in place to minimize occurrences," said Larry Langford, spokesman for Chicago's Office of Emergency Management and Communications.

Langford said much of the visible and invisible increases in security are the product of plans put in place following Sept. 11, 2001, and the notion of trains being a target for wanton violence isn't a surprise to anyone.

However, in the last week, he acknowledged, those plans have been "tweaked, based on what we now know." Neither he nor other transit officials provided details on many of the changes, and both Chicago police and CTA representatives referred to federal authorities questions of assessing how inviting a target our rails might be. Those federal officials could not be reached for comment.

It's unclear if anything's changed on Metra outside the Chicago city limits.

Tom Miller, spokesman for Chicago's Metra regional rail commuter network said, "We put certain measures in place after 9-11 and have not changed them."

On Friday, the new Homeland Security Department sent a bulletin to state and local officials across the United States advising them to consider protective measures for railroads and mass transit systems.

"Just as it's impossible to seal off other places of public assembly, like shopping malls, theaters, sports venues, restaurants, ground-based transportation can't be sealed off with security measures and continue to operate," said Cliff Black, spokesman for Amtrak national rail network. He said the railroad had increased patrols by police and dogs in stations across the United States.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

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