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Security bolstered on Baltimore-area trains

(The following story by Stephen Kiehl and Johnathon E. Briggs appeared on the Baltimore Sun website on March 16.)

BALTIMORE -- Amtrak is putting more bomb-sniffing dogs in its stations, the Washington Metro is deploying more uniformed officers on its trains, and transit agencies across the region are asking passengers to be on the lookout for suspicious packages and people.

The enhanced security in the aftermath of last week's train bombings in Spain is evident to Marylanders who commute by rail. But the nation's train network -- used by millions to get to work and around the country -- remains vulnerable to attack, authorities say.

Part of the problem is the nature of rail travel -- thousands of stations across the country and untold miles of unprotected track -- and the demand to move people quickly. It is impractical, officials say, to screen everyone who boards a train without crippling the system.

"We move 650,000 people a day on our metro rail system alone," said Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metro. "To make them all go through metal detectors and still get to work on time is not realistic. That's the whole nature of transit. It's for the masses, and for speed and for convenience."

With metal detectors out of the question, experts say, train security is a matter of better intelligence about potential threats, a more visible police presence and more cameras to monitor trains and passengers. Smaller measures are also being taken, such as removing trash cans from platforms.

The Maryland Transit Administration, which carries 100,000 riders every day on its commuter and light rail trains, and 230,000 on its buses, is increasing its surveillance of train stations and considering the creation of a full-time canine unit. Last week, the MTA borrowed dogs from the Maryland Transportation Authority's police force.

"If you look at what happened in Spain, there were things that could have been done to prevent it," said Dennis Schrader, director of the Maryland Office of Homeland Security. "We think some of the measures we've already taken could prevent some of these things."

He pointed to the additional police on MTA trains, some of them plainclothes, and to two recent terrorism-related training exercises at subway stations in Baltimore.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. asked transportation authorities to "sharpen their edge" after the attacks, Schrader said.

Some train patrons interviewed yesterday in Baltimore expressed concern, but others were not terribly bothered about the possibility of an attack.

"I'm not particularly worried," said anthropologist Laura DeLuca, 40, of Boulder, Colo., as she read a book at Penn Station while waiting for an Amtrak train to Philadelphia, where she planned to attend a geography conference. "I think that your chances of getting hit by a bus are as high as dying on a train."

A few benches away, Hyeladzira Mbahi, 30, said she was a "little scared" as she waited for the same train to Philadelphia. "If it can happen there, it can happen here, too," she said.

Mbahi, who lives in West Baltimore, said she feels comforted when she sees train personnel checking for tickets and keeping an eye on passengers, but she added that she would welcome increased screening.

"Safety comes first," she said.

Amtrak notes limits

Amtrak increased the number of police officers and canine units in its stations and on its trains after the Madrid attacks, but officials said there are limits to what can be done.

"You can fence in the perimeter of an airport. You can't fence in public ground transportation," said Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black. "It relies on the ability of people to move freely from one place to another. The practicality of interfering with every passenger at every entrance comes into question."

He said ground-based public transportation is a form of public assembly, like shopping malls, theaters and restaurants, and that means it must operate in an open environment. Securing the rails completely is "utterly impractical," Black said.

Amtrak has about 400 police officers nationwide and two dozen dogs, and it has no plans to increase those numbers. "It's a cost question," Black said.

Aviation continues to get most of the transportation security funding. The federal Transportation Security Administration is spending $3.8 billion on airport security this year, compared with $263 million for waterways, ports and rails.

"Our transit systems are stretched to their budget limits," said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security programs for the American Public Transportation Association. "While the money that's been provided by the Department of Homeland Security is appreciated, it's in fact a drop in the bucket for the true level of needs in public transportation."

He said money is needed for employee training, surveillance cameras, closed-circuit televisions to monitor public areas and intrusion-detection systems to alert officials to the presence of unauthorized people in tunnels or other places.

Some riders said they would feel safer if they saw more police officers. John Magruder, 41, said he occasionally encounters officers on light rail trains but does not think their presence is enough to safeguard against an attack.

'It's highly possible'

"When terrorists decide to hit light rail, they'll do it and won't have a problem," Magruder said before rushing off to catch his late-arriving train from North Avenue to downtown. "I'm not really worried, but it's possible. It's highly possible."

Light rail rider Alex Bergmann, 56, said he remains skeptical that much can be done to make trains as safe as planes. For one, the engineer from Pikesville said, there's no way to screen all the packages that passengers bring on board.

"We cannot secure our borders. How can we secure our trains?" he said.

Tuesday, March 16, 2004

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