The Government’s Been Working on the Rail Systems
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) is testing multiple passenger and baggage screening technologies for use with rail security systems, although the newest federal rail security directive does not yet mandate deployment of the new technologies.
TSA recently finished the first phase of the passenger and baggage screening system testing at a rail station in Maryland. The second phase of the testing has been implemented at Washington’s Union Station.
“We learned a great deal about this technology and its impact on the traveler,” Rear Adm. David M. Stone (ret. US Navy), TSA’s acting administrator, says of the first testing phase. “We will use these lessons to further improve rail security.”
When the TSA plans to implement those lessons is still unclear.
The Department of Homeland Security’s first rail security directive, released in late May, merely instructs railway operators to designate security coordinators, remove certain trash cans, conduct periodic inspections and ask passengers and employees to report any suspicious activity. Bomb-sniffing dogs were also deployed by 14 subway systems, 27 light rail operations and many commuter rail networks across the country.
More specifically, the new directive requires security coordinators to submit security plans to DHS for federal review. Undersecretary for border and transportation security Asa Hutchinson says the directive will increase coordination between local and federal rail security officials. He added that many of the railways had already implemented similar procedures in reponse to the Sept. 11 attacks and the recent Madrid rail bombings.
The security directive is designed for the current terror threat status. If the level is raised, additional measures could be added.
Transit authorities have spent more than $1.7 billion from their own budgets on security, according to a recent survey by the American Public Transit Association. The survey indicates that the industry needs to spend $6 billion more for upgrading radio systems, closed circuit television, testing for chemical and biological agents, fencing, more staff, overtime and training.
TSA, meanwhile, embarks on the second phase of testing, planning to screen checked baggage that goes onto the five long-distance Amtrak trains that depart Washington’s Union Station every weekday. Screeners will use some combination of X-ray machines, bomb-sniffing dogs and handheld explosives trace detectors.
In July, TSA plans to screen passengers as they board the trains. Screeners will use an X-ray machine for carry-on baggage and a portal that checks a person for explosive residue. It has not yet been indicated which trains will be selected for the passenger test.
The experiments are expected to yield important data on the effectiveness of screening equipment in a non-climate-controlled environment, as well as cost, and impact on Amtrak operations. This knowledge will aid in prototyping a cargo screening model that could be applicable to other modes of transportation.
“What we’ve been looking for in each of these cases is the efficacy, the impact on customer service, how it can be replicated, and what kind of performance data we get out of the equipment,” said Mark Hatfield, director of communication for the TSA.
The key obstacle in screening railway passengers is doing it fast enough so the trains can still run on time.
The final phase of the pilot program will involve setting up a mobile screening operation, according to Hatfield.
Some in Congress believe the TSA is not doing enough to secure railways. In April, a Senate committee approved spending more than $1 billion to protect railroads and mass transit systems from terrorist attacks.
Edward Wytkind, president of the AFL-CIO’s Transportation Trades Department, recently criticized the Bush Administration for short-changing rail security with “press releases and vague warnings.”
“Workers are simply not being trained to perform the security duties that come with being the eyes and ears of our transportation system,” Wytkind says. “We need a government that treats workers as partners, that seeks their input and advice, that mandates and funds security training, and that stops political finger-pointing when it comes to securing our transportation system.”
Wytkind adds that additional federal funding and federally-mandated training programs could go a long way toward fixing the rail security problem.