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Lawmakers Target Rail Security

March 24, 2004|From Associated Press

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration has neglected to protect railroads and mass transit systems from a terrorist attack like the one that killed nearly 200 people in Madrid, senators said Tuesday.

Though the entire U.S. rail system can't be protected from terrorism, the government can start by securing rail tunnels under Capitol Hill and New York's Penn Station because of their vulnerability to a catastrophic attack, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) told the Senate Commerce Committee.

Biden and fellow Delaware Democrat Thomas Carper proposed a bill that would improve ventilation and lighting and upgrade other emergency features in the tunnels.

In 2001, a 130-year-old tunnel under downtown Baltimore was the scene of a railcar fire that took five days to extinguish and crippled Internet systems and rail travel across wide areas of the East Coast.

Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the six Penn Station tunnels every day, the newest of which was built in 1910, Biden said.

Tunnels used by Amtrak that were built in 1904 run under the Supreme Court and House and Senate office buildings.

A separate, bipartisan bill would also order the Homeland Security Department to assess threats to railways and authorize $515 million to pay for security improvements.

That's still far short of what the industry says it needs. In an American Public Transportation Association survey, transit agencies said they need more than $6 billion for security.

Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he wanted the panel to pass a rail security bill before the Senate's April recess.

McCain chastised the administration for failing to develop a coordinated plan to protect railroad and mass transit systems.

"Rail is a target," he said. But "rail security efforts remain fragmented."

McCain said he was "somewhat confident" the administration recognized the need for the bill.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson cautioned against responding to individual events such as the attacks in Madrid, which were linked to Al Qaeda sympathizers.

"It's important that we don't simply react to incidents," Hutchinson said.

Rail systems have adopted some protective measures.

Freight railroads, for example, are on heightened security awareness. They conduct daily security briefings, inspect cars and containers and increase security at certain facilities, said Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads.

Hutchinson also outlined two Homeland Security initiatives that were announced Monday.

One, which is scheduled to begin this spring, will test a way to screen rail passengers and their luggage to see if there's a way to quickly and accurately detect security risks.

In the other initiative, he said, the Homeland Security Department would make available to local law enforcement agencies specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs and also help them train their own such dogs.

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