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MTA's Security Holes Are Spotted

More advanced surveillance cameras and bomb-sniffing dogs are among the upgrades sought after terrorist attacks in London.

July 27, 2005|Sharon Bernstein and Jeffrey L. Rabin | Times Staff Writers

Surveillance cameras in Los Angeles County's subway and along its most heavily traveled light-rail line do not routinely record images -- a security gap that has attracted more attention since British police used recorded pictures to help identify suspects in the recent London transit bombings.

The out-of-date cameras -- many of which do not pan, tilt or zoom -- are among several weak points in a system that was designed when fare-dodgers were a greater worry than terrorists, MTA and law enforcement officials said this week.

"Our system ... was not intended to stop terrorist activities," said John Catoe, deputy chief executive officer for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which runs the Red Line subway as well as the county's light-rail and bus systems. "We're now playing catch-up, just like the airline industry did after 9/11."

Other security holes include the lack of ticket-takers or turnstiles at the stations, and a public address system that is difficult to hear and understand, according to Catoe and others. The agency has no cameras on the trains or its own bomb-sniffing dogs, although it is in the process of getting both. Newly installed alarms meant to keep people from wandering or sneaking into subway tunnels do not ring in the stations -- instead, they silently alert officials at the MTA command center.

MTA officials say the July 7 London bombings have brought new urgency to upgrading security procedures in the county. Catoe, who oversees daily operations for the MTA, and the agency's top security administrators plan to present a report listing needed improvements to the MTA board in a closed-session meeting Thursday. They will ask for intruder alarms that ring on-site, more and better cameras, more sheriff's deputies to patrol Union Station in downtown Los Angeles and protection for the transportation authority's high-rise headquarters.

But Catoe, who names upgrading the cameras as his top priority, said the efforts to beef up security are stymied by a lack of funds.

Since the federal Department of Homeland Security was established in 2002, the MTA has received $5.4 million for antiterrorism efforts on the nation's third-largest public transit network, Catoe said.

So far, about $1 million of the grant money has been spent -- mostly for explosion-resistant trash cans, antiterrorism exercises, emergency response vehicles and the training of two bomb-sniffing dogs, who will be ready to take up their posts in about two months, said MTA spokesman Rick Jager. The rest has been earmarked for such items as upgrades to the gas-detection system in the subway and cameras on the trains, according to the report.

Catoe said the funds do not cover recording equipment for the cameras in stations along the Red Line subway between Union Station and North Hollywood, and the most heavily traveled light-rail route, the Blue Line, which connects downtown Los Angeles to Long Beach. The agency has applied for another $5 million in federal grants, but those would not cover a recording system either, according to Catoe. The MTA has been reluctant to spend money out of its annual $2.8-billion budget on such major antiterrorism measures because it would have to come from other services and projects, he said.

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, who is the new chairman of the MTA board, said he has begun lobbying Washington for more money for antiterrorism efforts. "Transit security is the highest priority for me," he said Tuesday. He said he was particularly concerned that the closed-circuit television cameras are "first generation, not state of the art."

Other needs detailed in the report, released to the Los Angeles Times, include installing barriers at Union Station to keep people without tickets from getting onto the Red Line and Gold Line platforms and additional cameras at bus yards and maintenance facilities. The report also says the agency should use signs, brochures and handouts in a major campaign to familiarize passengers with emergency procedures.

Ultimately, Catoe said, he would like to install turnstile-like barriers at all subway stations, which would cost about $30 million. Ticket purchases now are on an honor system, although sheriff's deputies check some passengers' tickets while patrolling the trains. The barriers could eventually be outfitted with technology -- now in development -- that would detect explosives.

The agency's buses have cameras that regularly record, as do stations along the newer but less traveled Gold Line between Union Station and Pasadena and the Green Line between Norwalk and Redondo Beach. On the Red and Blue lines, the cameras transmit images to an operations center, but those are recorded only if someone monitoring them spots trouble and starts the taping. Such a system probably would not have captured images like those London authorities used in their bombing investigations.

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