- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 23, 2004


The federal government should move quickly to upgrade emergency systems in Amtrak tunnels under the U.S. Supreme Court and to New York’s Penn Station to avoid a tragedy as disastrous as the September 11 attacks, Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. said yesterday.

Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the six Penn Station tunnels every day, the newest of which was built in 1910, the Delaware Democrat told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Though the entire U.S. rail system can’t be protected from terrorism, the government can start by securing the Amtrak tunnels under the Supreme Court and Penn Station because of their vulnerability to a catastrophic attack, he said.

“Can we stop an explosion of incredible consequences under the Supreme Court of the United States?” he asked.

Mr. Biden and fellow Delaware Democrat Sen. Thomas R. 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 rail car fire that took five days to extinguish and crippled Internet cable systems and rail travel along the East Coast.

Amtrak tunnels built in 1904 run under the Supreme Court and House and Senate office buildings.

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

That is 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.

Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John McCain, Arizona Republican, said yesterday he wants the committee to pass a rail security bill before the Senate’s April recess.

Mr. McCain chastised the Bush 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.”

He said he was “somewhat confident” the administration recognizes the need for the bill.

Homeland Security Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson cautioned against responding to individual events such as the March 11 bombings in Madrid, which were linked to al Qaeda sympathizers.

“It’s important that we don’t simply react to incidents,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

Transit and rail systems have put some protective measures in place.

Freight railroads, for example, are on heightened security awareness. So 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.

Mr. Hutchinson also outlined two Homeland Security initiatives announced Monday.

A project to begin this spring will test a way to screen rail passengers and their luggage to determine whether there is a way to quickly and accurately detect security risks.

He also said the Homeland Security Department would make available to local law-enforcement agencies specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs and help them train their own canine units.

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