The Transportation Security Administration will begin screening Amtrak and commuter train passengers at a Prince George's County train station next month, as part of a national test program to make rail travel safer.
Addressing concerns that America's railroads are a weak link in transportation security, the TSA said yesterday that it would test new technologies in screening passengers and their carry-on bags for explosives at the New Carrollton station.
Amtrak President David L. Gunn described the nation's busiest rail stations as being "like Swiss cheese" in an interview with Washington's WTOP Radio on Wednesday - echoing the concerns of some that train stations have too many points of entry and not enough security.
The TSA's pilot program at New Carrollton would address some of those concerns by screening passengers before they board. It is expected to start in early May and run 60 to 90 days. Officials said it would be less invasive and less time-consuming than the searches passengers endure at airports.
"This is looking for explosives, for bombs. There will be no removing of belts or shoes," said Chris Rhatigan, a spokeswoman for the TSA. "You know how trains work - the doors aren't open for that long. People get on and people get off. We don't want to interfere in that process at all."
TSA and Amtrak officials said they have been discussing the program since last fall, well before the train bombings in Spain that killed almost 200 people last month. Those attacks, however, highlighted the vulnerability of America's rail system, in which people can walk onto trains without showing identification or screening their bags.
The TSA chose the New Carrollton station because of its mix of commuter and long-distance passengers, mix of indoor and outdoor platforms and relatively small size. About 480 Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) passengers board at the station daily and about 315 Amtrak passengers.
The station is also a stop on the Washington Metro subway system, but officials said Metro passengers would not be affected. Indeed, the logistical difficulty of screening all transit passengers - 650,000 people use Metro daily - is overwhelming.
That's why the program - called TRIP for Transit and Rail Inspection Program - will be testing new technologies to find ways to screen people and their bags quickly. It hasn't been decided whether the screening will be by fixed machines or hand-held devices, or a mixture of the two. It's also undetermined whether all MARC and Amtrak passengers and their luggage will be screened, or only some.
"There's a need to maintain the movement of a large number of people," said Greg Hull, director of security for the American Public Transportation Association. "That will be key to this project."
Hull said transit agencies still believe that the vigilance of their employees and passengers is the best way to prevent attacks, but they welcome cost-effective technologies that would help them do that without slowing down passengers or trains.
The TSA said the lessons learned from the pilot program could allow it to deploy targeted explosives screening in high-threat areas or in response to specific intelligence. The TSA also hopes to find technology that can withstand outdoor weather conditions.
Maryland officials said they were pleased that the TSA chose a train station in the state for the program, and they said they have been assured MARC passengers will not see significant delays because of the screenings. The New Carrollton station is on MARC's Penn Line, which carries about 16,000 people per day between Baltimore and Washington.
The state, TSA and Amtrak have made other security improvements to guard against attacks like the one in Spain last month. Amtrak is adding more bomb-sniffing dog teams at its stations and seeking federal money to secure tunnels.