WASHINGTON — After terrorists bombed four crowded commuter trains in Madrid this spring, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge summoned leaders of the U.S. mass transit industry to his hilltop complex overlooking the capital.
"We need to make sure your systems are secure," Ridge said, according to a participant at the gathering. "Shall we do it in the same way we did the airports?"
The transit officials were aghast. Checking for shoe bombs at subway turnstiles or running backpacks through X-ray machines at bus stops would paralyze a vital element of the transportation system.
The good news was that Ridge wasn't making a serious proposal, but telling an inside joke to emphasize that he knew that techniques used to tighten security for air travel were impractical for mass transit.
The bad news was that neither he nor members of his audience had a good alternative.
After two years of intense focus on airline security, the government is turning to mass transit systems and Amtrak passenger trains. But no easy, quick, inexpensive or wholly effective answers are in sight. And industry officials and some key lawmakers contend that the administration is still underestimating the risks; they have called for at least $5 billion in federal funding for transit security.
Americans take more than 11 million trips a day by bus, train and subway, compared with 1.8 million by air. Yet Washington has spent only about half a cent for each rider on ground transit security since the Sept. 11 attacks, compared with more than $9 for each airline passenger, according to congressional estimates.
"A number of us lose a lot of sleep being concerned about what may happen and how well we are equipped to deal with it," said Richard White, general manager of the Metro transit operation in Washington. "Those of us who are in the operating world, in the real-life, here-and-now world, would like to see things happen faster."
Some options being considered by the Bush administration to help protect passenger trains and other transit systems include research to develop explosives detection technology for subways, and regular screening of Amtrak passengers and baggage at stations or aboard trains in special security cars.
The administration has issued basic security standards for public transit, and conducted vulnerability assessments focused on the largest systems. The standards call for each system to develop its own security plan in consultation with federal authorities.
Most systems, especially large ones such as those in New York or Los Angeles, were already taking action.
Many of them have launched publicity campaigns to encourage commuters to report abandoned or suspicious bags and parcels. Metal trash cans that could serve as hiding places for bombs have been removed, or replaced with hardened containers that can direct a blast upwards and away from patrons. Many systems now have dog teams that can detect explosives.
"A lot of it is good, old-fashioned crime prevention," said Capt. Dan Finkelstein of the Los Angeles Sheriff's Department, who serves as police chief of the Metropolitan Transportation Authority. The system has received a $4.5-million Homeland Security grant, which is being used to install security cameras and make other improvements.
But senior Republican and Democratic senators have concluded that the $115 million the federal government has committed to transit security nationally since the Sept. 11 attacks is insufficient.
They are pushing legislation to create a line item in the budget for local transit security needs, from surveillance cameras to air-quality monitors that can detect chemical toxins. The federal government subsidizes building transit systems, but not security costs. The administration has not taken a position on the $5.2-billion proposal.
The March 11 bombings in Madrid showed that a coordinated attack on commuters could have dramatic political consequences. Ten bombs planted on four commuter trains killed 191 people during the morning rush hour. A Spanish government that backed the U.S.-led war in Iraq was defeated at the polls.
"What happened in Spain could happen here; what happens on the West Bank could happen here," said Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.). "It's something we should not and cannot ignore."
Shelby, a former Intelligence Committee chairman, is an author of the Senate transit security plan. The bill was approved last month by the Banking Committee, which he heads and which has jurisdiction over transit.
Terrorists have a track record of attacking transit systems around the world, including a religious cult's 1995 sarin nerve gas attack in the Tokyo subway, the Irish Republican Army's targeting of British rail systems and Palestinian suicide attacks on city buses in Israel.
In the United States, there have been close calls.