Readying rail

May 25, 2004

MARYLAND IS home to one of the most secure train stations in the country. Unfortunately, it may be the only secure train station in the country. It's the New Carrollton station outside Washington, and this month it has been a test site for a first-ever passenger screening system.

The threat of terrorism has been a pressing concern for the nation's rail lines since Sept. 11, 2001, and the Madrid bombings in March served to amplify those misgivings. Under a directive issued by the federal Department of Homeland Security, the operators of railroad and transit systems must now take steps to improve passenger safety.

So are the nation's 10 million daily train commuters getting sniffed - the air around them checked for tiny traces of explosives - as they are in New Carrollton? Are new teams of police officers patrolling subway tunnels? Are rail employees getting formal training in security?

Not exactly. Here's a checklist of some of the major changes mandated by the Transportation Security Administration to make rail travel safer:

Trash containers that are not bomb-proof are being removed from stations.

Workers are being told by their supervisors to report unattended property or suspicious-looking customers.

Rail operators are asking local police agencies to be ready to lend them bomb-sniffing dogs in case they are ever needed.

Perhaps these improvements will help. We certainly hope they will. But taken together, they seem a little less than impressive. None of the ideas is bad; they're just modest.

Admittedly, it's not easy making rail travel secure. The economics of trains make it virtually impossible to offer costly airport-like screening. Same for other forms of mass transit. And even if passengers and rail cars could be checked thoroughly, what about the thousands of miles of rail lines?

But that doesn't mean the federal government is prudent when officials allocate just $115 million for rail and transit security. Amtrak, state agencies and other rail operators have spent more than ten times that much already. In contrast, airlines have benefited from $11 billion in security upgrades since the 9/11 attacks.

In Maryland, the homeland security allocation translates to about $3 million to make MARC commuter trains and Baltimore's subway and light-rail lines more secure. It has paid for such things as video surveillance cameras and fences. State officials say the agency was already largely in compliance (trash cans were removed long before Madrid).

This shouldn't be the last word in rail security. Experiments such as the New Carrollton bomb-sniffing portal deserve attention. If the Department of Homeland Security is going to demonstrate leadership in this field, then officials there need to lead. That means finding technology and systems that work - and helping rail operators acquire them. No train or transit system can be made invulnerable, but they can certainly be made far less attractive targets.

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