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Federal officials scrutinize security on Southern California's rail system

(The following story by Adam Eventov appeared on The Press-Enterprise website on March 17.)

RIVERSIDE, Calif. -- Federal officials are re-examining security along Southern California's rail system following last week's bombings of Spanish commuter trains.

The region's rail is a vital economic line that moves goods from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach through Riverside and San Bernardino counties and east to a country hungry for goods made along the Pacific Rim.

"The whole thing that happened in Spain is causing Americans to take a serious look at trains and railroad lines," said Christopher Becker, director of the Orange North-American Trade Rail Access Corridor, or OnTrac, an organization that promotes rail use through Orange County.

The House Select Committee on Homeland Security on Friday began reviewing a report on Southern California's rail security and the economic impact a major incident would have on the nation's economy. The Los Angeles Economic Development Corp., the Rand Corp. of Santa Monica and OnTrac produced the report.

Roughly $414 million worth of goods pour through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every day. About half of the products coming through the ports stay in Southern California, but the remainder travel east on the rails of Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Santa Fe through the Inland Empire, according to the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

Although the federal government has been communicating with the railroad industry about possible threats, the study criticizes the government for not adequately funding training for local fire and police departments to respond to major incidents, said Wally Baker, senior vice president of the Los Angeles Economic Development Corp.

"A lot of our economy depends on the rail system, so we need to be proactive," Baker said.

Much of the focus on terrorism, following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, has been on the airlines and airports, but some funding is reaching commuter services. Metrolink, which serves Southern California, recently received $1.9 million from the Department of Homeland Security. Metrolink officials are determining how to best spend the funding to improve security, said spokeswoman Sharon Gavin.

Judging from the recent bombings in Spain and past attracts on rail in Europe, passenger trains are a more likely target than freight trains, according to an analysis by the security and military think-tank Rand Corp.

Metrolink is already adding more uniformed officers to its trains and training its staff to be on the lookout for suspicious activity or packages, Gavin said.

Riverside County Transportation Commission, which operates five Metrolink train stations, has increased its private security force at its stations in Corona, Riverside and Pedley, said commission spokesman John Standiford.

After Sept. 11, the Washington, D.C.-based Association of American Railroads became a conduit for dispensing to its members security intelligence information coming from the FBI, Federal Railroad Administration and other government agencies, said Tom White, association spokesman.

White said the rail system makes it difficult for a terrorist to anticipate which train is carrying a target for a bombing, such as hazardous chemical. Also, a train would be an unlikely target of hijacking, unlike a truck, because switches on the rail can control a train remotely, White said.

Even with increased security intelligence, the vastness of America's 250,000 miles of rail makes it "inherently vulnerable," said K. Jack Riley, director of Rand Corp.'s Public Safety and Justice Program.

"The notion that security will be perfect and complete is not an expectation that can be lived up to," Riley said.

While prevention is crucial, improving the way federal and local governments respond to an incident is just as important, Riley said. The Northridge earthquake of 1994 showed that country is willing to repair its infrastructure when it needs to, Riley said.

Wednesday, March 17, 2004

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