POINT OF ROCKS, Md. You never know who you will see on a train. Maryland Transit Administration officials hope that, increasingly, it will be undercover police officers.
The agency is offering free Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) train passes to plainclothes officers who agree to keep an eye out for terrorists and other troublemakers while riding to and from work in the Washington area.
“Our goal is, with heightened concerns about potential threats from the al Qaeda, or vis-a-vis the sniper, to try and have some added eyes and ears out there on our service,” said Simon Taylor, manager and chief operating officer of the MARC system.
The FBI warned in October that terrorists have considered targeting U.S. passenger trains.
Mr. Taylor said MARC has just one paid security officer covering its 200-mile system and is hoping enough people sign up to provide at least one undercover officer on each of its 86 trains.
Guy Berry of Jefferson, who rides MARC’s Brunswick line to his engineering job in Silver Spring, said he thinks the program was a good idea.
“I haven’t felt unsafe so far, but one never knows, right?” Mr. Berry said yesterday after stepping off a MARC train in Point of Rocks.
The plan is based on a program the neighboring Virginia Railway Express (VRE) commuter service implemented after the terrorist attacks in 2001.
“After September 11, there was such a heightened sense of, ‘What are you doing to provide adequate and reliable security?’” VRE spokesman Mark Roeber said. “We have found that our riders have a great degree of comfort with the fact that they know maybe the person next to them is a law enforcement officer.”
Mr. Roeber said 68 plainclothes officers, including federal marshals and National Park Service employees, participate in Virginia’s program, along with 10 to 20 uniformed police officers who also ride the trains to work.
The program costs VRE $40,000 to $45,000 a year, substantially less than the $65,000 to $70,000 cost, in wages and benefits, of hiring a single security officer, Mr. Roeber said.
The VRE offer initially attracted applicants from the FBI, which quashed their participation for fear of exposing undercover agents, Mr. Roeber said.
There have been no incidents requiring the undercover commuters to act, Mr. Roeber said.
Their obligation “is simply to be our eyes and ears on the train,” he said.
“If something were to happen, we hope they will be able to rise to the occasion and deal with the issue,” Mr. Roeber said.
About half of the undercover rail riders previously drove to work. MARC spokeswoman Suzanne Bond said her agency also hopes to pull more commuters off the highways and onto the trains.
“We take our responsibility seriously to ensure we’re doing the most we can to keep the trip a safe one,” she said. “If people had reservations about using MARC train service for any reason, we would hope this program would be something that would tip their consideration in our favor.”