Russian train attack renews U.S. rail security concerns

(The following story by Mickey McCarter appeared on the Homeland Security Today website on March 30, 2010.)

NEW YORK Twin blasts that killed at least 38 people in the Moscow subway system Monday morning triggered heightened security measures for passenger rail systems in Washington, DC, and New York City.

The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority announced Monday that it would conduct random inspections of station and rail yards with Metro Transit Police K-9 Explosive Ordnance Detection Teams. Other transit police officers would conduct high visibility patrols throughout the day, the transit authority said.

"When we opened the Metro system this morning, we did so with heightened security," Metro Transit Police Acting Chief Jeri Lee said in a statement. "We remain an open system and we do what we can to be as secure as possible."

Lee added, "We will remain on a heightened state of security at least through the upcoming Nuclear Security Summit scheduled in Washington in a few weeks and we are partnering with federal and local law enforcement for security related to that summit."

The Nuclear Security Summit is scheduled to occur April 12-13 in Washington.

The Washington Metro system also held a number of drills recently to test its emergency response procedures and capabilities--including a simulated bus explosion in the parking lot of RFK Stadium in DC Monday. The exploding bus drill was held in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police Department and other law enforcement.

Metro also held a simulated explosion onboard a train traveling into DC over the weekend.

The transit authority last week introduced fire carts that can ride on its rail tracks and thus deliver first responders to the scene of disasters and accidents much more rapidly than previously.

Earlier this year, Metro added 20 officers to its anti-terrorism unit. Then in February, it unveiled an initiative called Blue TIDE (Terrorism Identification and Deterrence Effort), a high-visibility show of force to deter terrorism.

The New York Police Department (NYPD) Monday doubled its patrols of the city's subway trains, according to various reports. The NYPD also sent police cars to various transit hubs as to create high visibility to deter terrorism and reassure city transit passengers.

On a federal level, concerns about mass transit security resurfaced last week during confirmation hearings for Robert Harding, the retired Army general who withdrew his name from consideration to lead the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) late Friday.

On March 23, Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) chaired a hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee where he and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) raised concerns that TSA has not paid enough attention to rail security.

Hutchison, noting that "perhaps we haven't looked enough at surface transportation safety or buses and trains," cited that 68 percent of the White House TSA budget proposal for fiscal 2011 would go to aviation security while only 2 percent would go to surface transportation security.

Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.) raised concerns about surface transportation during a March 24 hearing as well.

"I worry that TSA's delay in issuing final regulations for public transportation and railroad training programs has allowed some transportation agencies to ignore security vulnerabilities and avoid providing training to their employees in these transit lines in which literally millions of Americans travel every day," Lieberman observed.

Rail attacks in the United Kingdom, Spain, India--and now Russia--highlight the interest terrorists have in striking passenger rail and taking advantage of the vulnerabilities that result from its inherent openness, Lieberman said.

Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center of Excellence at the at the Mineta Transportation Institute, said a similar attack is possible in the United States and that authorities have disrupted plots against the New York City subway system several times in the past.

"Easy access, confined environments, and large concentrations of people enhance the effectiveness of explosives and unconventional weapons," Jenkins said in a statement Monday. "That and the terror created by attacking city lifelines make public surface transportation an attractive target for terrorists who are determined to kill in quantity and without discrimination. These are not symbolic attacks meant as protests. They are lethal assaults meant to kill."

But security training for passenger rail systems and other measures could do a lot to reassure the public even though security in mass transit is very decentralized, Jenkins suggested.

"While 100 percent passenger screening is unrealistic, some systems have implemented selective passenger screening, where some randomly selected passengers voluntarily submit their bags and backpacks for brief inspection," he said. "In a diverse society extremely sensitive to profiling and privacy protection, selective screening must be carefully planned and closely managed to maintain public acceptance. However, it remains a useful option where, as in the wake of the Moscow attacks, subway and train systems are taking security up a notch to discourage copycats and malicious pranksters and to reassure passengers."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

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