The need for efficiency hinders transit security

Bombings In London

Mass Transportation

July 08, 2005|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

In the battle to protect mass transit systems against attacks, the world has few better models than London. Motivated partly by its history fighting Irish Republican Army bombings, the city has 6,000 cameras throughout its subway system, strategically placed phones for riders to report suspicious activities, and plainclothes transit police units.

But yesterday, those measures were powerless to stop a series of bombings on a bus and subway cars.

The attacks on one of the world's better-secured transportation networks bring home a daunting truth: The large mass transit systems that safely and speedily move millions every day, and without which many cities and countries could hardly function, are exceedingly difficult to protect.

Nonetheless, U.S. authorities took steps yesterday to increase transit security, raising the national security alert to orange for mass transit. In Maryland, that resulted in expanded canine patrols and warnings that train passengers should be prepared to present identification and have their bags searched.

When al-Qaida members hijacked four planes on Sept. 11, 2001, and crashed three of them into the World Trade Center and Pentagon, officials took obvious steps to improve airline security: cockpit doors were solidified, air marshals were hired, and airport screening of bags and passengers was improved.

There are no equivalent across-the-board fixes to protect trains, buses and subways, say transit-security experts. That's because successful transit systems depend on the very qualities that make them ill-suited to airtight security - they are far-flung, with many different stops for passengers to board, and they are rapid, allowing trains or buses to continue without lengthy delays at every stop.

Systemwide checkpoints would not only be prohibitively expensive, they would undermine the very purpose mass transit is supposed to serve.

"It's an immense problem. You have to adopt solutions which don't have a very horrible economic impact on the system itself," said Lee Strickland, a retired CIA analyst and professor of information policy at the University of Maryland, College Park. "So much of our commerce depends on moving large numbers of people and goods quickly via the surface that the solutions developed for aviation would be totally impractical."

To be sure, federal, state and local authorities have acted to improve transit security since Sept. 11 and the Madrid rail bombings of last year, which killed nearly 200. U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff outlined some of them at a news conference yesterday: There are additional police assigned to transit patrols, bomb-sniffing dogs, and video surveillance units, he said.

"We've already taken additional measures to secure transit systems," Chertoff said. "We're working to take all necessary precautions."

Critics of the government's approach to rail transit safety point out, though, that there has been much less invested in securing the country's rails, subways and bus lines than its airlines, even though U.S. transit systems carry 11 million passengers per day, roughly six times the number of Americans who travel by plane. Public transit systems have received $250 million in federal security funds since Sept. 11, a fraction of the $18 billion approved for airline security over that period, according to the American Public Transportation Association.

That organization says transit systems have spent $1.7 billion of their own money since Sept. 11 on security, far short of the $6 billion that the organization estimates systems need.

"It's pretty amazing, the difference" between airline and transit funding, said Rose Sheridan, the organization's vice president. "We certainly hope that Congress will see that transit systems have been attacked and that measures need to be taken to mitigate."

More funding would allow systems to invest more in security technology, from surveillance cameras to machines that can detect explosive residue on unattended bags. Air-quality monitors that can detect chemical toxins were recently installed in the Washington Metro system and found to be successful, but have not been installed elsewhere because of the cost - $15 million alone in D.C.

The federal government is also trying to find ways to apply new explosive-detection technology to transit. In May 2004, the Homeland Security Department tested a system that blows a stream of air on people to check for traces of explosive material on clothes and skin. The trial at the New Carrollton Metro station screened about 700 passengers a day for a month during peak travel times.

There weren't lengthy delays. But the system required 11 screeners and machines costing $630,000. And transit officials acknowledged that such checks would be impractical for big-city stops, unless a way could be found to adapt them for easy use at turnstiles, station entrances or train thresholds.

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