- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 7, 2005

U.S. commuter rail systems face a tough challenge as they increase security after the London transit system bombings yesterday.

Commuter railroads are among the most difficult passenger transportation systems to protect, say government and industry officials.

The systems carry about 1.2 million passengers each weekday, according to the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

“Unfortunately, all of public transit, including commuter rail, is a tempting target for terrorists,” said William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a trade group for the transit industry.

The vulnerabilities are built in to the operating system for the rail systems.



“We’re an open system rather than a closed system,” said Mark Roeber, spokesman for Virginia Railway Express, Northern Virginia’s commuter rail system. “It makes the checking and processing system much harder because you’re not passing through a single point of entry like on an airplane.”

Commuter rail systems are designed to transport large numbers of passengers, who buy tickets anonymously, then enter and leave at publicly accessible station platforms.

Commuter rail security also is labor-intensive, relying on large numbers of police to watch over passengers and infrastructure, Mr. Roeber said.

On any day, about 100 police officers ride VRE trains to watch for infractions or suspicious activity.

Maryland Transit Administration Secretary Robert L. Flanagan also acknowledged that the task is complex.

“We have a vast transit system; you cannot protect every place, everywhere, all the time,” Mr. Flanagan said. “You need to target those resources.”

The GAO, the investigative arm of the Congress, warned last year about the difficulty of protecting passenger rail systems.

“Securing passenger and freight rail systems is fraught with challenges,” the March 2004 GAO report said.

From 1997 to 2000, transit systems worldwide were the target of 195 terrorist attacks, according to the Mineta Transportation Institute, a transportation public-policy foundation.

The most spectacular attacks in recent years included the 1995 sarin gas attack on the Tokyo subway that killed 12 persons and injured 5,500 and the 2004 Madrid commuter train bombing that killed about 200 passengers and injured more than 1,000.

Among the measures used to protect commuter rail systems is the Transportation Security Operations Center in Herndon — a joint project of the Homeland Security Department, Federal Railroad Administration, Association of American Railroads and others.

The center monitors the nation’s rail system and gathers intelligence on threats.

Nevertheless, the APTA says more needs to be done.

“Since 9/11, the federal government’s funding of transit security has been woefully inadequate,” Mr. Millar said.

Last year, an APTA survey of U.S. transit agencies identified $6 billion in unmet transit security needs.

Congress is providing $150 million for transit and rail security in fiscal 2005.

Last month, the Senate Appropriations Committee proposed cutting transit and rail security grants to $100 million for fiscal 2006.

A vote by the full Senate scheduled for next week is shaping up to become more of a struggle after the London bombings.

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, New York Democrat, said yesterday that he would seek to double federal spending for rail and other transit security to $200 million in fiscal 2006, which begins Oct. 1.

“The soft underbelly of buses and subways and railroads are fully exposed to similar terrorist attacks unless we take real steps to beef up mass transit security immediately,” he said.

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