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Are America's trains safe?

(The following report by Bob Simon of 60 Minutes II appeared at CBS.com on April 1.)

NEW YORK -- Since the Sept. 11 attacks, there have been dozens of plots to blow up trains or subways in major cities around the world. But Americans didn’t really pay attention until nearly 200 people died a few weeks ago in Madrid.

It didn’t surprise terrorism experts, who’ve been warning that rail systems are among the softest targets in Europe and America.
But despite the fact that, in New York alone, more people pass through Penn Station each day than through all three New York airports combined, almost every penny of transportation security money has gone toward airline safety.

Are the trains safe? The simple answer is no, nothing is. But can anything be done to make them safer? Correspondent Bob Simon reports.

* * *
"You can't do the things that you can do at an airport," says New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. "It’s a daunting challenge. We have 468 subway stations right here in New York City. It’s a tremendous challenge."

To try to find some solutions, Kelly has sent detectives to Madrid to study the terrorist attacks there, since that city's commuter rail network resembles that of New York: several regional trains converging in one station, making one big target.

"We've done some adjustments in the tactics that we use as a result of that," says Kelly.

But ask any train rider and they will probably register surprise that there hasn’t been some kind of rail attack in this country already, given the apparent ease with which it was done in Spain.

And what a lot of people don’t know is that there have been serious threats to the rails in the United States. Domestic terrorists derailed a train in Arizona in the '90s and left close to 100 injured and one person dead.

There have been other plots that have been foiled. One in particular came straight from the architect of Sept. 11: Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, who was arrested in Pakistan last March.

Interrogators got the name of a U.S. citizen, Iyman Faris, from him, and he was quickly picked up last year. One of those plots was to derail trains.

"My client admits that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad told him to check these things out," says Faris’ lawyer, David Smith.

Faris was ordered to check out derailing a train and finding the necessary tools for the job. According to Faris’ plea, the code word was "mechanics shops."

"That was a code that had been -- that Khalid Sheikh Mohammad told my client to use in messages back to Pakistan, and 'mechanics shops' was a reference, was a reference to these tools," says Smith.

"Khalid Sheikh Mohammad was particularly interested in the possibility of causing a derailment on a curve on an elevated line, like on a mountainside. And why? Not because that would kill more people, but because he thought it was spectacular."

Another spectacular plan Faris was asked to investigate was the possibility of bringing down the Brooklyn Bridge – a plot apparently inspired by, of all things, the Godzilla films.

"Both of these two plots by Khalid Sheikh Mohammad involved spectacular ‘Hollywood-like’ effects. And it seems to fit in very nicely with the World Trade Center attack," says Smith.

Faris was sentenced to 20 years; Smith is appealing the case since Faris claims he never implemented al Qaeda’s plan.

* * *
"Iyman Faris is a good example that transit is a target of the terrorist," says Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of Homeland Security.

Hutchinson admits the plots go well beyond al Qaeda’s Hollywood-inspired scheme: "There has been a specific threat in the past in regard to the subway system that was addressed. It was not carried out, and there was a security response to that particular threat."

In 2002, the FBI even warned that "al Qaeda is targeting the U.S. railway sector" after pictures of American trains were found in al Qaeda’s possession.

But it’s taken the dramatic images of Madrid to get Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge to announce some new rail security measures last week: "The security environment for trains will never resemble that for aviation. Having said that, in a post-9/11 and post 3/11 world we want to see if there’s a way to engineer access in a better way."

Ridge and Hutchinson have announced a pilot project to screen bags at train stations, and to develop better bomb detection technology. It’s a small step, though, considering that Amtrak still has only 350 officers to police tracks and stations in 46 states.

"This is an example of where a federal minimum standards of security would have some impact, and Amtrak has invested, more needs to be invested," says Hutchinson.

While $11 billion has been spent on air security, only about $110 million has gone to subways and commuter rails.

Since 2000, there have been bomb plots on trains in India, Russia, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Israel, Germany, and now Spain. A bomb was found on the French rails just a few days ago. Is there concern that the United States might be next?

"Well, we certainly have to be concerned about it, and it's been a subject of serious effort by the department," says Hutchinson, who adds that most rail security is still funded by cities and states, unlike airline security, which the federal government took over after Sept. 11.

* * *
New York has set up its own counter-terrorism transit units, which, since the Madrid attack on March 11, have stepped up subway sweeps.

"We do this several times every day, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, all over the city," says Inspector Vincent DeMarino, head of the subway anti-terrorism unit.

Last week, he let 60 Minutes II tag along as his team was doing a routine check in Brooklyn. The train was stopped. Cops dressed in full battle gear, automatic weapons at the ready, got on board. They scoured the trains, and dogs sniffed around. But these days, in New York, no one even seemed surprised.

Like many subway cops around the nation now, DeMarino carries a radiation detector. Hidden somewhere in the subway tunnels are biological and chemical weapon detectors, and transit workers are getting trained on how to evacuate a train in case that kind of weapon goes off.

But when it comes to regular old bombs – the terrorist’s weapon of choice — this is still the state of the art: man’s best friend. The reality is that cities like New York can only afford to do occasional spot checks, and Amtrak has only 12 dogs to police 22,000 miles of track.

"We’re learning what maybe could’ve been done to prevent it," says DeMarino.

But the biggest lesson may be awareness. Some survivors of the Madrid attacks say they saw unattended backpacks, but just didn’t pay any attention. Are people more aware in New York now?

"We see it increasing. We see the public becoming more aware of their surroundings," says Commissioner Kelly. "We have a counter-terrorism hotline that people call. We have the capacity to respond with investigators 24 hours a day. And indeed we do."

Kelly has also asked all of his cops – even those not specifically tasked for counter-terrorism – to keep an eye out for possible terrorist activity on the rails. It paid off last November, when an officer spotted two suspicious Iranians with a video camera at a train platform in Queens. The Iranians, who turned out to be diplomats, were deported persona non grata.

"We all take risks in our lives these days. We do live in a somewhat dangerous world," says Kelly. "But I think we’re doing everything that we can to protect the system."

Kelly’s next big challenge is the upcoming Republican National Convention, which will be held this summer in New York's Madison Square Garden, right on top of Penn Station.

Thursday, April 1, 2004

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