Metra adding security force to morning commuter lines

(The following story by Erika Wurst appeared on the Joliet Herald News website on July 1, 2009.)

CHICAGO This week, as thousands of area residents ride the Burlington Northern or Union Pacific trains into Chicago for fireworks and a taste of the Taste, they'll likely notice increased security put in place for crowd control.

Coming soon, however, the same level of security might be seen on the regular morning commutes to work.

Metra commuter rail officials announced Tuesday that security teams from the federal Transportation Security Administration will soon be patrolling commuter trains in the Chicago area,

"It's not in response to a specific threat," Metra spokesman Meg Reile said of the increased safety measures. "We're being proactive to stop any threats out there."

The patrols teams, to be launched on an unspecified date, can consist of federal air marshals, transportation security officers, TSA-certified canine teams, surface transportation security inspectors or local and state law enforcement officers. They will work in partnership with local security and law enforcement officials.

Members of the security patrols have been attending classes that Metra holds for police and fire departments throughout the region. They will coordinate their efforts with the Metra Police Department and the police departments of the Union Pacific and Burlington Northern Sante Fe.

Attacks elsewhere

The security teams were created following the Madrid, Spain, train bombings of 2004. They previously patrolled Metra trains only during large events, like President Obama's victory celebration in Grant Park.

"During the Taste of Chicago and the July 3rd fireworks, we always have added security," Reile said. "It's been that way forever."

TSA then approached Metra to develop a program to augment Metra's existing security.

Reile said the security teams will be looking for "anything from a package left behind, or people behaving strangely ... normal things to watch for since 9/11.

"They're mostly there for an added level of awareness. They won't be on every train, but they'll be throughout the system. When people become accustomed to them, it won't be startling to see them on the train."

Security team members will be wearing uniforms while on their train patrols.

'Not scared or worried'

Local commuters, however, don't seem to feel the need for the amped-up security measures.

"I take the train all the time, and I've always felt safe," said Aurora mother Jeannie Norris on her way home from Chicago Tuesday. "(Something like a terrorist attack) doesn't come to mind on the train at all. I think there is a perception that there is more danger than there actually is."

First-time rider Julian Ponce didn't seem worried about any pending attacks either as he waited at the downtown Aurora Transportation Center to take the Metra train to the Taste of Chicago.

"I'm not scared or worried about anything," he said.

The only security his friend Rocio Ramos said she felt she needed was from the "drunk, crazy people on the weekend."

Several other travelers agreed with her concerns. Fighting and public drunkenness were among the top of their worries when traveling on the train.

Other than that, "I feel pretty safe," Ramos said. "I love taking the train because I don't have to pay for parking or gas."

Better safe than sorry

Riders like Liz Ebey of Aurora, however, understand Metra's security concerns.

Ebey, who takes the train from LaGrange to Aurora about once a week, said while she feels safe for the most part, she wouldn't mind passing through a metal detector before boarding.

"It would slow down the whole process," she noted, while sitting outside the Aurora Transportation Center with her bags in hand.

She pointed to a startling, mid-January incident that stopped a commuter train for 90 minutes while police from Lisle, Naperville and the Burlington Northern searched all 10 cars, and evacuated two, after hearing reports of a suspicious passenger who was possibly holding a gun.

The incident turned out to be a mix-up. The gun-wielder was actually a Secret Service agent who raised alarm when questioning a ticket agent about security procedures. The train resumed its course at 9:40 a.m. but left many of its passengers feeling uneasy about the situation.

"I think people were alarmed, because when Lisle police came on board, they were armed," Metra spokesman Judy Pardonnet said about the January incident. "It's unfortunate to have to test a response, but it's good to know what that response is. And in this situation, everything turned out safe."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

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