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Senators promise new U.S. rail security bill

(Reuters circulated the following story by John Cawley on March 23.)

WASHINGTON, D.C. -- U.S. senators pressed the Bush administration on Tuesday to sharply boost rail security investment, and promised legislation to safeguard trains and subways in the aftermath of the deadly Madrid bombings.

The March 11 attack in Spain on four trains by suspected radical Islamists killed 190 people and has prompted fresh urgency in Congress to boost security for sprawling freight and passenger rail networks and mass transit systems used by millions of people each day in major U.S. cities.

"We've learned from the (2001) aviation attacks that if you're not ready it can be devastating," Sen. Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat, told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing.

Several rail security proposals are being considered by lawmakers, including a $515 million bi-partisan Commerce Committee bill. That plan would provide money to assess vulnerabilities nationwide, test bag and passenger screening technology, and improve surveillance of rail facilities.

"We will mark up the bill and have it ready and do everything we can to get it passed," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican and commerce panel chairman. "I'm somewhat confident the (Bush) administration recognizes the need for this as well. We have some differences and I hope we can work them out."

McCain said he would consider aspects of another Senate proposal for enhancements like more police patrols and improving tunnel infrastructure.

Amtrak says protecting and upgrading tunnels is a top priority. "Tunnels are where the most people concentrate and where the most damage can be done," said John O'Connor, Amtrak's No. 2 police official.

Two previous Commerce Committee rail security bills were never considered by the full Senate for a variety of reasons including the cost of implementing the requirements. McCain said if that happens again he might attach the measure to a must-pass bill as an amendment.

Senators sparred with Bush administration officials over security priorities, and decried what they called a dramatic under-investment in rail security since the 2001 airline hijack attacks. Lawmakers said the government has spent billions on aviation security but only $115 million on rail security.

Asa Hutchinson, homeland security undersecretary, defended the administration's efforts, noting the agency's announcement on Monday that it would begin a pilot program for screening rail passengers and their bags for bombs. He also said more money would be available for rail security in the 2005 budget.

"I believe it is important that we don't simply react to incidents. We should invest in security based on intelligence and assessments on vulnerability," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said there were no current near-term threats against U.S. rail or transit systems, and intelligence continues to center on aviation as a potential target.

Wednesday, March 24, 2004

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