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U.S. defers additional aid for rail, transit security

By Spencer S. Hsu and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post

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 help.

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.