Rail Security On a Fast Track
As soon as the horrible aftermath of the Madrid rail bombings that claimed nearly 200 lives became public knowledge, the United States government was making moves to protect the country’s rail system.
“We know that al-Qaida looks to hit us, hit us hard, and that mass transit is something they have consistently referenced,” said Asa Hutchinson, border and transportation security chief at the Homeland Security Department. The FBI and DHS issued a bulletin in response to the Madrid attack advising state officials, police, transit and rail agencies to consider additional surveillance.
The U.S. rail system responded swiftly. In New York, extra police officers and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolled subway and train stations. In Connecticut, state troopers began riding commuter trains between New Haven and New York City. And officers in SWAT gear and bomb-sniffing dogs were dispatched to subway stations in Washington, D.C., while riders were asked to be extra vigilant and report any suspicious packages or people.
The timely response pointed to a recognition of the importance of transit security — and lawmakers have wasted little time in giving the transit agencies money to pay for the security enhancements.
Congress passed the $1.1 billion Rail Security Act of 2004 in early April, opening a flow of money to be invested in bomb-sniffing dogs, explosives and radiation detectors, police officers and tunnel improvements.
“Rail security is a matter of national security,” said Sen. Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and the ranking Democrat of the Commerce Committee. “It’s no longer a function we can leave to the private sector.”
The unanimously passed, bi-partisan bill requires the DHS to develop a plan within 180 days to improve rail security throughout the country. It calls for tightening security at railroad stations and tunnels and for railcars that carry hazardous materials.
The $1.1 billion for rail security is a significant increase from the scheduled $65 million in security grants in 2003 and $50 million in 2004. Airports, on the other hand, have received $12 billion for security since Sept. 11, 2001.
“We need to pay urgent attention to securing our trains now,” said Senator Charles Schumer, a New York City Democrat who has seen local police step in to fill security gaps at the Rensselaer Rail Station in Albany.
“It should not be the taxpayers of Rensselaer County who have to pay to protect this station,” Schumer told the Albany Times Union.
The question for the rails: How should security be implemented?
“We cannot apply an aviation standard to railroads and mass transit,” Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge said following the Madrid attack. “The security environment for trains will never resemble aviation.”
Ridge confirmed that the government has begun testing ways to screen rail passengers and luggage; however, he stressed the procedures would be different than at airports. The Rail Security Act also launches a separate pilot program to test passenger screening technologies.
The Bush administration has backed a proposal by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) that would beef up federal penalties for rail attacks and clear up discrepancies between punishments for targeting freight and passenger trains.
The proposal, which representatives of the Justice and Transportation Departments endorsed at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing, also would make it a federal crime to release biological or hazardous materials on any mass transportation provider, including trains. Should anyone be killed in such an attack, the death penalty would apply.
Despite the new pressures, many local transit agencies have revamped their approach to security, Chief Joseph Bober of the New Jersey Transit Police told Knight-Ridder.
New Jersey has placed more emphasis on patrolling tunnels and bridges, which are now inspected on a daily basis. The transit force also has added four bomb-detecting canine teams and has increased the number of officers by a third.