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Spain blast prompts demands for funds

(The following story by Spencer S. Hsu and Lyndsey Layton appeared on the Washington Post website on March 22.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Public transit officials in Washington and across the country said they plan to ask the Homeland Security Department today for increased federal aid after the Madrid train bombings, arguing that anti-terrorism efforts must extend beyond the aviation industry.

The nation's commuter rail and subway systems, which have 14 million passengers a day, remain under-equipped to deter, detect or prevent a wide-scale attack similar to the one in Madrid, said Richard A. White, executive director of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit System.

Since September 2001, the federal government has provided $11 billion to secure the private airline industry but only about $115 million in grants to public transit agencies, White said. White, William W. Millar, executive director of the American Public Transportation Association, and officials from Amtrak and the Association of American Railroads are scheduled to meet with Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to argue for a reshuffling of priorities.

"Given the tragic situation that occurred in Madrid and the very vivid image of carnage, death and suffering that came out of that, imagining something like that happening on our soil is a very sobering situation," White said. "We don't disagree with the strategic approach that Homeland Security has been setting. . . . But we really have to have more of a dialogue of what additional things can and need to be done."

Public transit systems in this country -- including subways, commuter rail, buses, ferries and light rail -- estimate they need $6 billion for security improvements, Millar said. "Our members are telling us this is what they need to improve security on their systems, to build the ability to recover rapidly in the event of a terrorist attack," he said.

The safety of surface transportation systems in the United States has been on the radar screen of federal officials, but not nearly to the degree of aviation security and, to a lesser extent, port security.

The disparity exists for many reasons. The Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks revealed gaping vulnerabilities in commercial aviation, and airport security has largely become federalized, security experts said. Similarly, the danger posed by passenger or cargo jets converted into a flying bomb is perceived to be far deadlier and wide-ranging than most incidents involving rail-bound train cars, they said.

At the same time, commuter and mass transit lines are inherently open systems, designed to be accessible from as many points as is practical and to zip people quickly between destinations. By comparison, air travel is a closed system by which each passenger and piece of luggage can be screened.

"In the post-9/11 environment, they understandably focused on the airport system first," Millar said. "I certainly understand that. In light of the terrorist attack in Madrid, attention is now focused more on the railroad and public transit industries."

Federal officials pointed out in a confidential bulletin to local authorities after the March 11 Madrid bombings that transit systems are difficult to secure against a sneak attack because of the relatively reduced security.

"We are a free and open society, and we have a free and open rail system right now," said Dennis Murphy, a spokesman for Ridge. "Before any changes are made to that, it takes careful thought and careful discussion, and it's not the kind of thing to exactly throw money at blindly."

Analysts noted that the bombings in Spain were apparently synchronized using cell-phone timers attached to 13 backpacks filled with explosives, 10 of which detonated, killing 202 people. The attack would have been difficult to prevent without forcing commuters through metal detectors and scanning all bags for explosives -- an undertaking not operationally feasible for most train systems.

Murphy added, "There's no magic bullets here -- I suppose the magic bullet is public and citizen awareness because we have millions of eyes and ears out there, and people who are alert are probably our best asset in this."

Nevertheless, transit officials have said that the history of terrorism in recent decades -- from Irish separatists' bombing Britain's railways to the Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack on Tokyo's subway in 1995 -- shows that rail systems are favored targets.

Washington's Metro system has received far more in federal security assistance than any other system in the country outside of New York City's -- $57 million since 2001 -- and the system's top priority, a $70 million backup operations control center, would not directly prevent an attack.

But White said the aid has only "scratched the surface" of vulnerabilities. For instance, though Washington's subway system is one of a handful of sites in the United States where new chemical sensor technology is being tested -- at a cost of $15 million -- only half the city's underground stations have been outfitted with them. Likewise, only 100 of 1,600 buses and no rail cars have been fitted with cameras, he said.

The 83-station system has added eight or nine bomb-sniffing dog teams, White said. Intruder detection systems have been added to Metro train yards but not to bus yards. Electronic entrance security systems have been set up at three Metro buildings, but not at bus and rail yards.

Since 2001, Metro has submitted annual requests for federal security aid of $190 million, $107.5 million and $60.5 million. Washington's transit system is the country's first to undergo a threat assessment study by the Office of Domestic Preparedness in Ridge's department, White said. A report is expected in June.

On Friday, Washington's Metro system rolled out an advertising campaign -- called, "Hey, is that your bag?" -- that asks passengers to look out for unattended bags. Metro Transit Police Chief Polly L. Hanson said the system must persuade its 1.1 million daily bus and rail passengers to help protect Metro. "It's a civil-defense mentality," she said.

"We're trying to deter and detect attacks through good intelligence and other human intervention systems," White said. "But our challenges go beyond that, to mitigating the consequences of [incidents] . . . since the degree of probability is much higher on rail and public transit than any other."

Virginia, Maryland and District members of Congress wrote Ridge on Friday, seeking more money for Metro to direct more money to the backup control center; to detect toxic industrial chemicals; and to explore decontamination technologies for biological, chemical and radiological agents.

Murphy disputed the characterization of federal homeland security aid to transit systems, saying that $115 million in grants has been earmarked for rail and transit systems since last May. An additional $100 million was sent to Amtrak in 2002 for security upgrades to New York City's Penn Station.

An additional $407 million has gone to biological and chemical agent detection, though not all of it to mass transit, Murphy said. He said the Bush administration has proposed next year doubling the amount of state and local grants -- to $1.45 billion -- through its Urban Area Security Initiative, of which rail systems are a part.

Monday, March 22, 2004

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