Members of Congress have been asking more questions about government steps to
strengthen security on the nation's railways. A congressional hearing Wednesday
followed announcement by the Department of Homeland Security of a test program
at a rail station outside of Washington aimed at scanning passengers for explosives.
With the summer vacation period about to begin and national political conventions
in East coast cities in July and August, lawmakers are uncomfortable with what
many see as a lack of major progress on rail security.
The U.S. passenger rail system remains largely "open," without security measures
seen at the nation's airports.
Ernest Frazier is chief of police and security for AMTRAK, the nation's largest
passenger rail company. "Because of advantages such as easy access, convenient
location, and inter-modal connection, rail and mass transit systems are completely
different from the structure and organization of the airline transportation
and airport industry," he noted. "As a result, the security framework that
works ideally in the airport setting is not transferable to rail station systems."
Although this is understood by members of Congress, the reality has many
In a hearing of the House subcommittee on railroads, Washington, D.C. delegate
Eleanor Holmes Norton said she is "astonished" more has not been done. "There
is no overall sense from the federal government of how to run a safe and secure
railway," she said.
Just a day before, Asa Hutchinson of the Department of Homeland Security
spoke at a Maryland train station where a limited "test" program to assess
methods of screening passengers for explosives is underway.
"If we had particular terrorist intelligence, that they were targeting a
particular subway station, or particular area. but it might be over two months,
you don't want to close it down," he said. "You want to keep it running. Our
objective is to keep the transit systems working for the passengers in a safe
For lawmakers representing cities heavily reliant on railroads, the fact
that such a test program has only just begun and will not be widely "deployed," is
Massachusetts Congressman Stephen Lynch is from Boston, the site of the Democratic
Party convention at the end of July. "I just don't want people to expect that
we're going to use the same response to September 11 in this case, with regard
to rail security," he said. "After September 11, rightly or wrongly, we were
able to say we never saw it coming. In this situation, we have seen it, we
have seen what is coming. And we can either choose to respond to it and develop
a safe system of passenger and cargo rail in this country, or we can ignore
it and suffer the consequences."
Chet Lunner, of the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA)
said that the government is aware of potential terrorist threats, but emphasized
that regional rail and transit authorities were acting to "harden" security
even before the bombings in Madrid. "The industry working in conjunction with
us has done quite a bit already so what we are in the process of doing is finding
out, after that is done, where are the gaps that remain," he said.
However, Corrine Brown, a Florida Democrat, was not persuaded the government
is doing enough. "I haven't heard anything in closed door, private, secret
or public, that gives me the assurance that rail safety is being taken care
of," she noted. "If I was going to give the [Bush] administration a grade,
it would be 'D plus' or 'D minus,' lucky not 'F.'"
After the terrorist attacks in Spain, officials from some key U.S. transportation
systems went to Madrid to consult with authorities there.
Jack Dermody, president of the Long Island Railroad, describes the measures
taken on that system, which is closely linked to New York City. "In analyzing
points of vulnerability we have placed special emphasis on critically-important
locations, high-value targets, where there is the most potential loss of life,
serious economic impacts to the region or high costs for recovery or replacement
or a large degree of environmental damage possible," he said.
Not all hearings on rail transportation security have taken place in public.
Some have been closed to prevent sensitive information regarding the nation's
rail system from falling into the hands of known or potential terrorists.