Bombings lead U.S. to raise security for trains
(The following article by Eric Lichtblau and Sarah Kershaw was posted on the New York Times website on March 13.)
WASHINGTON -- Law enforcement and transit authorities said Friday that they were moving to bolster security on passenger rail lines around the country, particularly in the crowded Northeast corridors. But some officials warned that rail and subway systems remained particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks like the ones in Madrid.
In the hours after the attacks, officials busily moved to put more bomb-detection teams, electronic devices and other measures in place from Washington to New York to Seattle. Transportation experts said, however, that the Madrid bombings underscored the fact that rail security had lagged woefully behind aviation improvements since the 9/11 attacks. And Democrats in Congress quickly proposed a $500 million commitment for rail security to help narrow the gap.
American security officials said that while they had no specific intelligence about imminent attacks in the United States, Al Qaeda had made clear that it considered commuter train and subway systems to be vulnerable.
"We do know that Al Qaeda looks to hit us hard and that mass transit is something they've consistently referenced," Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for the Department of Homeland Security, said at a news conference on Friday. Investigators were still trying to determine whether the group was responsible for the Madrid bombings on Thursday.
While there were no plans to raise the nation's threat level from its current yellow, or elevated status, federal officials said they began taking steps almost immediately after the Madrid attacks to tighten security at high-risk train stations and rail lines.
Federal officials said Friday that they had added law enforcement officers and bomb-detection teams in certain high-risk locations, alerted state and local officials about their concerns over mass transit systems and urged the public to be on guard. Amtrak, meanwhile, increased its own security patrols and intensified electronic surveillance on bridges and tunnels, a spokesman said.
Federal officials were most concerned about subway and train systems in and around New York City, Washington and other major Eastern cities. "The whole Northeast region is obviously the most highly served and densely populated set of corridors," said a federal transportation official. "Routes between Boston, New York, Washington, Philadelphia, Chicago — those are the ones I would identify as higher value targets."
In New York, the police and other authorities increased patrolling of both uniform and plainclothes officers in the subway system and at Grand Central Terminal, using dogs as well as sweeps along various lines. Officers climbed on and off trains, and stood guard along train platforms.
In large subway and rail systems like those in Washington and Chicago, local officials urged passengers and their own employees to report any unattended bags or other suspicious items. In San Francisco, where the Bay Area Rapid Transit system covers 104 miles of track, officials did not plan any immediate increase in security.
And in Seattle, where security since the Sept. 11 attacks has focused on the nation's largest ferry system, officials urged police officers who patrol the ferries, buses and monorails to be vigilant.
Brian Jenkins, a transportation security specialist at the Mineta Transportation Institute, said the Madrid bombings, like the frequent bus bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995 and other attacks, showed the vulnerability of mass transit systems.
"Our ability to prevent these attacks is limited because public service transportation is public and therefore is easily accessible, and the volume of traffic on these systems is huge," dwarfing air transit, Mr. Jenkins said in an interview.
Officials say that it would be nearly impossible to check every passenger boarding from myriad train platforms along any given rail line, or to screen the luggage and other bags that are carried on every day.
Experts say that to be successful, public transit must be convenient and inexpensive, making it difficult to impose the types of strict security seen at airports. The passenger volumes are enormous, about 14 million people a day, according to the American Public Transportation Association, of whom most are on buses, plus about 4 million on subways, suburban commuter trains or other rail transport, and smaller numbers on ferries. In contrast, there are a little under 2 million airplane boardings every day.
Local law enforcement officials in several major cities said Friday that they were concerned that the government had devoted far more toward improving air safety than rail or other mass transit systems. The Department of Homeland Security since last May has spent $115 million on grants for rail security, a small fraction of the billions spent to beef up aviation safety.
Calling the Madrid attacks "a wake-up call," several Democrats in the Senate on Friday introduced legislation that would authorize $515 million in 2005 to improve rail security safety and provide grants to private railroads for security.
"More people use Amtrak's Pennsylvania Station in New York City in a single day than use all of New York's airports combined," said Senator Thomas R. Carper of Delaware, one of the sponsors. "It is imperative that the Homeland Security Department take specific steps to ensure that rail passengers are as safe as they can be from terrorist threats."
If Al Qaeda does turn out to have been responsible for the Madrid attacks, said Gil Kerlikowske, the Seattle police chief, "I think there's going to be a lot of reconsideration in this country about modes of transportation other than airplanes. I think there really needs to be some serious rethinking on that."
Mr. Hutchinson, the homeland security undersecretary, said that it is still unclear whether Al Qaeda, the Basque separatist group ETA or other terrorists were behind the Madrid attacks.
At the American Public Transportation Association, William W. Millar, the president, said that since Sept. 11, transit systems had concentrated on training their employees and "making sure that they're aware what's going on in the environment."
The training, he said, would have personnel ask questions like, "That box that wasn't there before, why is it there now?" Employees are also trained to watch for "aberrant behavior by customers," he said.
Many systems have equipped their buses with systems that keep track of their locations and report back automatically, he said. This is primarily for operational improvement but can help security, he said.
Mr. Millar said that transit systems have the ability to advise all trains or buses of an attack, but need to work out procedures, determining, for example, whether trains should stop immediately if one were attacked, or should pull into stations or get off bridges.
Monday, March 15, 2004
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