Security devices falter in rail tests

(The following article by Thomas Frank was posted on the USA Today website on February 14.)

WASHINGTON -- An ambitious test of machines for checking subway and rail passengers for bombs failed to find a technology that can reliably stop terrorists such as those who attacked trains in Madrid and London, according to a Homeland Security Department assessment.

The $7 million government program tested futuristic screening equipment in major rail systems last year and found that each of the technologies had significant problems.

Many machines triggered excessive false alarms, some took too long to screen passengers, and one “could not consistently locate the item that caused the alarm,” according to the report, which was not made public but was presented at a recent rail-security conference in Arlington, Va.

The effort to screen rail passengers “needs significant investment,” the assessment concludes. Democrats in Congress have recently pledged to boost spending on subway security systems by billions.

“There’s no plan to put any of the technology that was tested in the pilot in broad-based use. We want to continue to do more research,” said Robert Jamison, deputy administrator of the Transportation Security Administration (TSA).

The test indicates the limited role that technology can play for now in securing the nearly 12 million people who ride subway and rail systems each weekday. That contrasts with aviation, where 8,800 bomb detectors installed quickly in airports after 9/11 screen 535 million pieces of luggage a year.

“We’re years away from any technological solution,” said Brian Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center in California.

The only near-term solutions are metal detectors and X-rays, as well as bomb-sniffing dogs, the report says. It says dogs tested in an Atlanta subway had to rest after 45 minutes and needed air flow to smell explosives. “Using canines for person screening is still a developing technology,” the report says.

Both methods are costly. Using the machines or dogs in the New York City subway would cost about 40 cents per passenger trip. The cost in Cleveland subways, which have 19,000 passengers a day compared with New York’s 6 million, would be $3.45 per trip.

The technological limitations are forcing the Homeland Security Department to find other ways to secure rail systems. “We’re heavily pushing the visible, unpredictable deterrents,” such as teams of dogs, transit inspectors and marshals, Jamison said. Passengers and rail workers are encouraged to report suspicious activity, and emergency responders get training in handling a rail bombing.

That emphasis “is the result of tests like this that show even this advanced technology is not really ready, and there are other things we can do better right now,” said TSA chief Kip Hawley.

Former New York police commissioner Howard Safir advocates random passenger searches like those in the New York subways. “The fact that they’re checking is going to be a deterrent,” he said.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

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