Mass transit officials ponder defenses against terrorism

Government turns gaze toward rail and bus lines

July 04, 2004|By R. Alonso-Zaldivar | R. Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - After terrorists bombed four crowded commuter trains in Madrid, Spain, in March, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge summoned leaders of the U.S. mass transit industry to his hilltop complex overlooking the capital.

"We need to make sure your systems are secure," Ridge said, according to a participant at the gathering.

After two years of intense focus on airline security, the government is turning to mass transit systems and Amtrak passenger trains. But no easy, quick, inexpensive or wholly effective answers are in sight. And industry officials and some key lawmakers say that the administration is still underestimating the risks; they have called for at least $5 billion in federal funding for transit security.

Americans take more than 11 million trips a day by bus, train and subway, compared with 1.8 million by air. Yet Washington has spent only about a half-cent for each rider on ground transit security since the Sept. 11 attacks, compared with more than $9 per airline passenger, according to congressional estimates.

Options being considered by the Bush administration to help protect passenger trains and other transit systems include research to develop explosives-detection technology for subways, and regular screening of Amtrak passengers and baggage at stations or aboard trains in special security cars.

The administration has issued basic security standards for public transit and conducted vulnerability assessments focused on the largest systems.

Most systems, especially large ones, were already taking action. Many of them have launched campaigns to encourage commuters to report abandoned or suspicious bags and parcels. Metal trash cans that could serve as hiding places for bombs have been removed or replaced with hardened containers that can direct a blast upward and away from patrons. Many systems have dog teams that can detect explosives.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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