Magazine article National Defense

Protecting the Rails: Congress, DHS Turn Their Attention to Guarding Ground Transportation

Magazine article National Defense

Protecting the Rails: Congress, DHS Turn Their Attention to Guarding Ground Transportation

Article excerpt

No one should be surprised if terrorists strike a passenger rail system on U.S. soil.

Industry and government officials have stopped short of saying "it's not a matter of if, but when." But they caution that all the signs are there.

Since 9/11, small terrorist cells using relatively low-cost, simple-to-manufacture explosives have struck, London, Madrid and Mumbai, India.

"We can see this coming," said William Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association at the Railway Security Forum and Expo.

Millar, and other industry representatives, have criticized the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation for not adequately funding efforts to protect the approximately 33 million passengers who board surface public transportation every weekday. About 2 million use commercial aviation, yet that industry has received $24 billion since 9/11, Millar said. Rail security funding has amounted to $386 million.

"We don't think it's right. We don't think it's fair. We don't think it's sensible," Millar said.

More federal leadership on the issue is forthcoming, a congressional staffer said.

In the wake of 9/11, upgrading aviation security received justifiable attention. Last year, maritime security was addressed in the SAFE Port Act. Now, there is consensus in Congress that 2007 will be surface transportation's turn, said Stephan Gardner, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee's Democratic staff

The Surface Transportation Security Improvement Act was introduced Jan. 5. A similar bill stalled last year. It had support in the Senate, but not the House. That will change this year with Democrats in control of both chambers, Gardner predicted.

The act addresses everything from intercity buses, freight trains and trucking. However, passenger trains are of most concern. Since 9/11, one-third of terrorist attacks worldwide have targeted commuter trains, Millar said.

But what can be done to protect passengers in a fast-paced "open system?" Train and subway stations are unlike airports where access is tightly controlled and everyone is screened. Are there technologies that can help root out potential attackers? Are the solutions low-tech or no-tech?

Millar is the Transportation Security Administration's most vocal critic. Assistant Secretary Kip Hawley's assertion before a Senate hearing that funding for rail security is adequate was "flat out wrong," he insisted. Millar doesn't begrudge the aviation industry for the overwhelming amount of resources the federal government has doled out since 9/11. But the federal government's message has been that public transportation systems, all locally operated with the exception of Amtrak, are largely on their own, he said.

DHS officials would disagree. The department announced transit security grants totaling $171.8 million this year. The bulk of the funds will go to the New York-Connecticut-New Jersey region at $61 million, the national capital region at $18.2 million, Boston at $15.3 million. San Francisco, Chicago, Philadelphia, Los Angeles and Atlanta will receive smaller amounts. Amtrak will receive $8 million. Inner-city buses can apply for $11 million.

Assistance also comes from the Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration, which supplies training materials. Other state homeland security grant programs can be used to upgrade rail security, DHS officials have pointed out.

Millar said these are paltry amounts. The federal government should chip in $6 billion over the next three to 10 years to help bolster public transportation security, he said.

If Congress does come up with the money, questions remain on where the money should go. Training employees to spot potential bombers, and awareness campaigns for the public, do not require expensive cutting-edge technologies.

Every day, the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority sets up random bag checks in four stations, said Lewis Best, intelligence unit commander for the MBTA transit police. …

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