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Senate bill would better protect rail lines

(The Associated Press circulated the following story by Leslie Miller on March 24.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- The Bush administration has neglected to protect railroads and mass-transit systems from an attack like the one that killed nearly 200 people in Spain, senators said yesterday.

Though the entire U.S. rail system cannot be protected from terrorism, the government can start by securing the Amtrak tunnels under the U.S. Supreme Court and New York's Penn Station because of their vulnerability to a catastrophic attack, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

"Can we stop an explosion of incredible consequences under the Supreme Court of the United States?" Biden asked.

Biden and fellow Delaware Democrat Thomas R. Carper proposed a bill that would improve ventilation and lighting and upgrade other emergency features in the tunnels.

In 2001, a 130-year-old tunnel under downtown Baltimore was the scene of a railcar fire that took five days to extinguish and crippled Internet systems and rail travel along the East Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the six Penn Station tunnels every day, the newest of which was built in 1910, Biden said.

Amtrak tunnels built in 1904 run under the Supreme Court and House and Senate office buildings.

A separate, bipartisan bill would also order the Homeland Security Department to assess threats to railways and authorize $515 million to pay for security improvements.

That is still far short of what the industry says it needs. In an American Public Transportation Association survey, transit agencies said they needed more than $6 billion for security.

Sen. John McCain (R., Ariz.), chairman of the committee, said he wanted the panel to pass a rail-security bill before the Senate's April recess.

McCain said the administration failed to develop a coordinated plan to protect railroad and mass-transit systems.

"Rail is a target," he said. But "rail-security efforts remain fragmented."

McCain said he was "somewhat confident" the administration recognized the need for the bill.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson cautioned against responding to individual events such as the attacks in Madrid.

"It's important that we don't simply react to incidents," he said.

Transit and rail systems have put some protective measures in place.

Freight railroads, for example, are on heightened security awareness. So they conduct daily security briefings, inspect cars and containers, and increase security at certain facilities, said Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

Hutchinson also outlined two Homeland Security initiatives announced Monday.

A project to begin this spring will test screening for rail passengers and their luggage to see if there is a way to quickly and accurately detect security risks.

He also said the Homeland Security Department would make available to local law-enforcement agencies specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs and help them train their own canine units.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

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