Homeland Security urged to increase focus on railroads

Following last week's train bombings in Spain, two Republicans have called on Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge to balance his department's focus on air and seaport security with an increased emphasis on protecting the nation's railroads.

In a letter sent Friday to Ridge, Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, and Rep. Michael Castle, R-Del., pointed to what they called "disconcerting" discrepancies in transportation security funding and asked Ridge to explain what efforts the Homeland Security Department was planning to increase rail security. Ridge had not responded to the letter by presstime. Snowe and Castle noted that the fiscal 2004 budget allocated no funding to assist Amtrak or commuter rail services with passenger security efforts.

"For too long, the federal government has made air and port security top priorities, while funding for rail security has lagged far behind," Castle said.

Snowe and Castle in November directed GAO to produce a report on rail security measures in Europe and Japan. The agency was asked to examine foreign passenger and baggage screening technologies and the potential cost of incorporating those systems within Amtrak. A source familiar with the report request said the final report was expected in June. But a GAO analyst who handles homeland security studies said the agency had not yet begun any work on the foreign rail study and had nothing to report so far.

Senate Commerce ranking member Ernest (Fritz) Hollings, D-S.C., introduced legislation Friday that would authorize $500 million for the Homeland Security Department to study and improve rail security across the country. The Hollings bill also includes a provision -- originally included in legislation introduced last fall by Snowe -- directing Amtrak to conduct a passenger screening pilot program.

The Commerce Committee twice approved legislation similar to Hollings' current bill when Hollings served as committee chairman during the 107th Congress. A Hollings aide said today that Commerce Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., supported the legislation in the last session but had not yet weighed in on the bill proposed last week. The aide said the legislation was "essentially the same as what the committee reported out previously." A McCain aide did not respond to a request for a response. But the Hollings aide said the committee had not yet decided when or if it would take up Hollings' bill.

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