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Terrorists a danger on trains

(The following story by Elaine S. Povich appeared on Newsday’s web site on March 22.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- With images of the dead and bloodied in the Madrid railroad bombings still fresh, some Northeastern senators and members of Congress are warning that Pennsylvania Station and other U.S. rail facilities are vulnerable to a similar attack.

More train security measures and funding are needed, they say, to protect the U.S. railways. But some Republican leaders in Congress -- looking at tight budgets and a mounting federal deficit -- say more money may not be the answer.

The divisions set the table for what looks to be an intense negotiation in the coming weeks over how to protect the millions who travel by rail in the United States, including more than a half million New Yorkers who use the trains each day.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) plans a hearing tomorrow to address what additional steps should be taken in the wake of the Spanish train bombing to protect the American rail system from attack, according to a committee official.

In Penn Station alone -- the busiest railroad station in the United States with 21 tracks and 15 miles of tunnels -- 750 trains and 500,000 commuters pass through every weekday, according to Department of Transportation Inspector General Kenneth Mead.

McCain has been in the middle of this issue before. After the Sept. 11 terror attacks, a bill to beef up airline security also had a section on railroad protection. But President George W. Bush vetoed the bill and the train section was stripped out. Separate legislation on train security died.

This year, there are renewed efforts to increase railroad security, including an $898-million bill by Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) to heighten security in Penn Station tunnels as well as tunnels in the Baltimore/Washington area.

King said in an interview that it's foolish to assume that the terrorists will or won't attack trains in the United States just because they did in Spain.

"You have to assume they are going to try something new and they are going to come back with something that's been done before," he said. "You have to assume everything. Evacuation and rescue is going to be almost impossible the way the tunnels are now. It's absolutely a matter of homeland security."

But House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said Wednesday that the best way to address security issues, including railway security, is to look at the bigger terrorism picture, including the war in Iraq. "Go fight them where they are," DeLay told reporters. "That is one of the more effective ways to protect the homeland."

DeLay also said that "535 members" of the House and Senate are in no position to try to figure out what homeland security needs are; that's better left to the Department of Homeland Security, he said.

Earlier this week, Homeland Security deputy secretary Asa Hutchinson came under harsh questioning by members of Congress for what they said was a skimpy commitment to railroad security. Some members noted that the Bush administration budget calls for $5.3 billion for transportation security in the upcoming fiscal year -- all but $147 million of it for air security. They called for more commitment to railroad and other ground transportation security issues.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for a doubling of the funds to rail security. Hutchinson said the department is awaiting the results of a study before committing funds.

Rep. Christopher Cox (R-Calif.), who chaired the hearing, said homeland security is a priority. "There may not be a lot of extra money for whatever else people are looking for, but there is for homeland security," he said. He added, however, that the department would be the one to set the level, not necessarily Congress.

Tell that to Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), who rides Amtrak nearly daily from Wilmington to Washington and is considered one of the nation's foremost experts on the rails. Biden is looking to add $1.5 billion in spending to enhance security on the nation's rail lines, particularly in the Northeast corridor. He told the "Imus in the Morning" radio show last week that rail lines always have been considered a target, even before Sept. 11. He said numerous warnings were received about possible attacks on trains, but none panned out.

Last July, two days before the celebrations for the nation's 227th birthday, terror jitters made a comeback as streets in lower Manhattan were closed and subway service on several lines was suspended for hours after a small plastic bag and an envelope containing a white, powdery substance were found on a seat on a northbound No. 1 train at the Canal Street station.

The incident proved to be a prank, but officials said at the time it showed how easy it is to leave something dangerous on a train.

Monday, March 22, 2004

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