By Spencer S. Hsu and Lyndsey Layton
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced a package
of improvements for U.S. railroad security this week but deferred
requests by public transit systems for $6 billion in new federal
aid in the wake of the March 11 train bombings in Madrid.
After meeting with representatives of Washington and New
York transit systems, Amtrak, public transit and railroad
associations, Ridge announced plans to speed the launch in
early May of a pilot program to test baggage-screening technology
at a station served by commuter rail and Amtrak, such as Washington's
Union or New York's Pennsylvania station.
Homeland Security officials also will use existing funds
to create a rapid-response team of explosive-sniffing dogs,
which would help transit systems in high-threat situations,
and to help systems integrate employee and public awareness
security campaigns, Ridge said.
The secretary's remarks followed complaints from members
of Congress in both parties and from private industry officials
that such efforts are long overdue and that the Bush administration
has not done enough to secure the nation's rails, compared
with its efforts in aviation and seaports.
Criticism intensified after this month's synchronized bombings
that killed 202 people and wounded more than 1,800 in Spain.
Today, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is to chair a hearing of
the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee
on rail security.
Ridge rejected for the time being requests for new funding,
even as he emphasized changes made since the Sept. 11, 2001,
terrorist attacks, and called U.S. transit systems "among
the safest in the world."
"The notion that things are the same as they were on
September 10th is just it's wrong," Ridge said,
noting that transit systems have spent $1.7 billion to upgrade
their security. Citing the need to maintain open access and
convenience, Ridge said the administration did not want to
"provide enough security to put the mass transit systems
out of business."
William W. Millar, executive director of the American Public
Transportation Association, said he welcomed the idea of a
pilot program to screen bags and a rapid response canine team,
but he said the transit industry still needs about $6 billion
to make its ferries, buses, subways, commuter railroads and
light rail systems more secure.
"This is clearly just the first step," said Millar,
who said Homeland Security officials would continue to meet
with the industry.
Millar said the industry has used money from fares or local
taxes to upgrade security since Sept. 11 but now needs federal
Ross Capon, executive director of the National Association
of Railroad Passengers, which represents railroad riders,
said he was concerned that Homeland Security officials were
investing in technology that doesn't address the real threat
facing the nation's railroads.
"When a lay person takes a train, the first thing they
say is, 'Hey, they're not checking my bags like they do at
the airport -- this is crazy!' " Capon said. "But
checking bags doesn't necessarily reflect the considered opinions
about threats to passenger rail."
It makes more sense to improve security at rail bridges,
tunnels, stations and maintenance yards, Capon said. And it's
unclear whether screening bags for commuter railroads, like
MARC and Virginia Railway Express, would be practical for
travelers trying to get to work on time, Capon said.
Officials from Homeland Security and Amtrak in recent months
discussed testing a kind of voluntary luggage-screening at
the New Carrollton Amtrak station.
But federal officials ultimately decided the program would
be too cumbersome and it was dropped, said a source familiar
with those discussions who spoke on condition of anonymity
because of the sensitivity of the project. The pilot program
announced yesterday would be more streamlined and create less
of a choke point for passengers trying to catch frequent trains,
the source said.
"We stand ready to work with the Department of Homeland
Security on implementation should they deem that Amtrak is
appropriate to try this," Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel
said, referring to a pilot screening program.