Getting on Track

Spain's 9/11 leads to pleas for increased U.S. rail security.


n the aftermath of the Madrid terrorist bombings, Congress took a fresh look at what the Homeland Security Department has done to protect rail and mass transit systems, and many legislators were distressed by what they found. Since 2003, the department has spent $115 million to safeguard rail and transit systems, roughly 1 percent of the $11 billion devoted to aviation security. By late March, the Washington-area congressional delegation, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and dozens of congressional Democrats were weighing in with pleas for more funds-and criticism of Homeland Security. "Let's face it, our rail systems have been left vulnerable to terrorist attack," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., at a March 23 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

Even new measures announced by Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge-a pilot program to test baggage screening at a single rail station and the creation of bomb sniffing dog teams-met skepticism from Democrats, who noted rail security still didn't merit a line item in the Bush budget. "No more security on the cheap," snapped Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.

Homeland Security officials, for their part, were reluctant to let the bombings dictate their rail security strategy. "I believe it is important that we do not simply react to incidents," said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, at the hearing, arguing that intelligence and vulnerability assessments should drive security funding.

But the Madrid bombing apparently changed the department's thinking in the area of railway baggage screening. Planners in the Transportation Security Administration had crafted a pilot rail-screening program before the Madrid attacks, but the effort had trouble getting off the ground. "There was quite frankly some hesitation as to whether the pilot is an appropriate step in the transit environment," Hutchinson told reporters after his testimony.

Aviation-style screening, which checks each passenger and piece of luggage, is seen as unworkable for mass transit, with its numerous entry points and links to other transport networks. In announcing the pilot project, Ridge stressed that TSA would not replicate "the aviation model" at train stations, but would instead test screening tactics that could be used "in high-threat areas or in response to specific intelligence."

Passenger screening has not been high on the wish lists of local transit agencies across the country. William Millar, executive director of the American Public Transportation Association, says transit agencies have spent $1.7 billion of their own funds to tighten security since Sept. 11 and need $6 billion more for security improvements such as perimeter fencing, video cameras and new radio communication systems. Transit agencies want Uncle Sam to open his checkbook.

Greg Hull, a transit security expert with the association, says rail systems are pleased with the technical assistance they've received from the federal government, much of which has come not from the TSA, but the Federal Transit Administration, a small Transportation Department agency. FTA has funded research, promoted security training and hired Booz Allen Hamilton, a consulting firm, to conduct vulnerability assessments of the nation's 37 largest transit systems.

Homeland Security officials also praise FTA's work. Officials at the department's Office of Domestic Preparedness say FTA's vulnerability assessments were used to divvy up the $115 million in security funds that have been handed out. But FTA did not experiment with baggage screening-an area that TSA, with departmental backing, now will begin to explore.