MARC rush hour adds 20-foot walk

Commuter rail station in Dorsey begins test today on device to screen for explosives

April 04, 2006|By MEREDITH COHN | MEREDITH COHN,SUN REPORTER

Beginning today, all rush-hour riders at the MARC commuter rail station in Dorsey will have to walk through a 20-foot-long box to be scanned for explosives, part of a test of a mobile screening device that eventually could be deployed nationwide.

Harried commuters will have to remove their coats, but not their shoes, during the pilot program that will run through April 28. The federal Transportation Security Administration, wary of promising there won't be lines, is urging commuters who take morning trains to arrive at the station 10 minutes earlier than they normally would.

Security on mass transit, particularly commuter rail and bus lines, has been tricky for TSA to manage. The primary threats to trains and buses are from bombs carried aboard, as in terror attacks on transit systems in London, Madrid and Moscow.

But screening millions of people every day at every station across the country would likely be cost-prohibitive and slow commutes to a crawl. Security experts say transit officials might have to settle for a system deployed only during a crisis or as a random deterrent.

Transit authorities now primarily rely on bomb-sniffing dogs, video surveillance, random searches of riders and their bags and tips from riders and employees.

The mobile checkpoint uses technology found at the nation's airports since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and puts it in two standard shipping containers that sit side by side. They can be moved from station to station on a flatbed truck within a day.

Since the equipment is not as focused on small metal objects, rail riders, unlike air passengers, don't have to take off their shoes or empty their pockets.

The scan is supposed to take an average of 15 seconds per person, and the $1.24 million pilot program will test for that speed, as well as the overall accuracy of the scanners and the cost of operating a mobile box that uses portable generators. If it works as planned, more units could be placed around the country for rail emergencies, for sporting events, or after disasters that wipe out existing checkpoints, said TSA federal security director David Beecroft. "We want to see if this works," he said of the system, which has been in the works for more than two years. "This is the first of its kind."

Riders during the test that begins today will first step through a machine that detects traces of explosives by blowing puffs of air onto clothes and skin. Such puffers are used for secondary screening at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport and others. Riders also will walk through a metal detector as separate X-ray scanners screen their bags.

A focus on explosives is appropriate for rail lines, said Christopher Kozub, associate director for safety and security at the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University. And deploying the box only for a specific purpose is appropriate because commuters who use the transit system more than others won't tolerate permanent airport-style security.

"The fluid nature of the rail system, the freedom to get on and off along the way, is what makes them convenient," he said. "As security concerns increase, you need some restrictions. But if changes were made to rail systems in an extreme fashion, you'd have systems that were safer but no one would use them."

Maryland volunteered its transit systems for the test. Maryland Homeland Security Director Dennis R. Schrader said the Dorsey MARC station was ideal because it has steady, rush-hour usage of about 580 people but isn't the state's busiest station. A trial of the explosive-detection technology in May 2004 at the New Carrollton Metro station did not test the speed and cost of a mobile system.

The box was developed by Smiths Detection, a division of London-based Smiths Group PLC, which also makes much of the airport security equipment. "People are concerned about missing their trains," said James M. Viscardi, the New Jersey manager of transportation security technology and programs. "We configured this for mass transit. It's less concerned about your keys in your pocket."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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