- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 19, 2008

WASHINGTON (AP) — Amtrak passengers will have to submit to random screening of carry-on bags in a major security push that will include officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains, the railroad plans to announce today.

The initiative is a significant shift for Amtrak. Unlike airlines, it has had relatively little visible increase in security since the 2001 terrorist attacks, a distinction that has enabled it to attract passengers eager to avoid airport hassles.

Amtrak officials insist their new procedures won’t obstruct the flow of passengers.

“On-time performance is a key element of Amtrak service. We are fully mindful of that. This is not about train delays,” said Bill Rooney, the railroad’s vice president for security strategy and special operations.

Nor will the moves require passengers to arrive at stations far in advance, officials said. Passengers who are selected randomly for the screening will be delayed no more than a couple of minutes, said Alex Kummant, Amtrak chief executive.

“We’re very conscious of the fact that you’re in an environment where commuters have minutes to go from train to train,” he said.

Concern about Amtrak security has been mounting since the 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid that killed 191 persons. Trains also have been bombed in London, where 52 persons were killed in a series of blasts in 2005, most of them on subway trains, and in Bombay, where about 200 people were killed in 2006 on commuter trains. Russia also has had several bombings on subway, commuter and long-distance trains.

The new procedures draw heavily on those used in New York City subways, Mr. Rooney said. That model has been upheld in court challenges, he noted.

Amtrak plans to roll out the “mobile security teams” first on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the railroad’s most heavily used route, before expanding them to the rest of the country.

The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates. Officers will randomly pull people out of line and wipe their bags with a special swab that is then put through a machine that detects explosives. If the machine detects anything, officers will open the bag for visual inspection.

Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.

In addition to the screening, counterterrorism officers with bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms and walk through trains, and sometimes will ride the trains, officials said.

Tim Connors, director of the Center for Policing Terrorism at the Manhattan Institute, said rail systems require a completely different approach to security from the one used in aviation.

“Rail moves a lot more people than air does,” he said. “It’s designed to be an open system that can move a lot of people fast.”

Mr. Connors said random screening could be effective.

“A random approach is actually more effective than a constant one,” he said, adding that when procedures don’t change, it’s easier for would-be terrorists to find weak spots.

Amtrak hopes the new force can serve as a powerful deterrent to would-be terrorists.

“What we are trying to do is make sure the bad guys know we’re out there but don’t know where we’ll be, or when,” Mr. Rooney said.

Amtrak did not provide figures for the program’s cost, but said its total security budget — including police, security strategy and emergency preparedness — is about $60 million. The railroad has about 400 security personnel, including about 300 sworn police officers, Mr. Kummant said.

Amtrak’s previous passenger screening consisted of sporadic identification checks by train conductors, which the railroad says it plans to continue. Passengers also are required to show ID when buying tickets from station agents, though there is no such requirement for those using self-serve kiosks.

The Transportation Security Administration is expected to continue sporadic deployments to stations across the country.

Amtrak has received several federal grants aimed at boosting security, but officials said there was no specific mandate to implement the changes.

“There is no new or different specific threat,” Mr. Kummant said. “This is just the correct step to take.”

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