Tuesday, May 4, 2004

The federal government started testing a screening system on Amtrak and commuter rail passengers yesterday at the New Carrollton train station.

Results from the monthlong test will be used to deploy similar systems at passenger railroad stations nationwide if the need arises, federal officials said.

“We’re simply looking for explosive materials,” Asa Hutchinson, Department of Homeland Security undersecretary for border and transportation security, said during a press conference at the New Carrollton station.

Federal officials hope to avoid a repeat of the March 11 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 persons.

New Carrollton passengers are now being screened when they stand in a gateway near the escalator leading to the train platform. Eight puffs of air spray against them as another device sucks the air in. If a chemical analysis inside the machine finds no trace chemicals from explosives, a red light turns green, allowing the travelers to pass through.

The process takes 14 seconds and does not require further searches of passengers’ clothing. Bags must go through an X-ray machine, similar to the ones used at airports. Transportation Security Administration screeners monitor the passengers and their bags.

About 1,000 Amtrak and Maryland Rail Commuter (MARC) passengers are expected to pass through the screening checkpoint daily, Mr. Hutchinson said.

“On the first day they try this, I would suggest they get here about five minutes early,” he said.

The TSA plans additional phases of the “Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot” tests soon, which will include using screening devices on baggage in a storage area at Union Station. During a third phase scheduled to begin in July, passengers on trains will be screened. A site for the third phase has not been selected.

The federal government plans to use the passenger rail screening systems at other train stations only in response to “a specific threat,” Mr. Hutchinson said.

The testing is “to develop the capability,” he said. “We need to learn through this.”

The screening procedures will be tested by having federal agents try to sneak fake explosives through the checkpoints and by surveying passengers on whether they feel too inconvenienced.

Gwendolyn Alexis, a retired teacher from Bowie traveling to a funeral in New York, said she passed through the security checkpoint with “no problem.”

“If it’s for safety, what can you say?” she said as she stood on the platform.

Screening will be done only during peak travel times, which run from 5 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. weekdays and from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. The federal government is paying for the test, including approximately $620,000 for the high-tech equipment.

Amtrak officials said their main concern was the “free flow” of passengers.

James F. Ports Jr., Maryland Department of Transportation assistant secretary, said, “How much do people want to be inconvenienced for safety? That’s the real question.”

Train passengers at the New Carrollton station yesterday afternoon had few complaints about the security screening.

“As long as we don’t miss our train, I don’t mind,” said Cynthia Barksdale, a government analyst waiting in line at the security checkpoint for a return trip home to Baltimore.

Stuart Banta, a U.S. Treasury contractor from Bowie, said the short delay at the checkpoint did not bother him.”It’s better safe than sorry,” he said.

The first day of the test also attracted a protester.

“I feel this is an exercise in futility,” said James Hutzler, an Alexandria merchant. He stood outside the station carrying a sign that said, “TSA Rail Passenger Screening — A Waste of Tax Dollars.”

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