Management & Operations

Transit Steps Up Security

Posted on August 1, 2001 by Leslie Davis, managing editor

When the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapsed on Sept. 11, the entire world heard it, though not quite as loud as the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey did. Owning the land the Trade Center was built on, the Authority housed its administrative offices in the building. On that day, they lost not only Executive Director Neil D. Levin, but 37 employees and 37 Authority police officers were still missing or dead as of October. While they are not a common occurrence in the United States, terrorist attacks on surface transportation systems have increased worldwide during the past 25 years. Forty percent of terrorist targets worldwide in 1998 were against transportation targets, with a growing number against bus and rail systems. The tragic events of Sept. 11 and the continuous threat of bio-terrorism prompted U.S. transit agencies to take stock of their safety procedures and prepare for more potentially life-threatening situations. Like many other transit agencies, the Port Authority believed it had enough security in place to handle any type of emergency. This, though, was not your typical emergency. “Obviously, we always have security. We’ve just stepped it up and intensified it at all Port Authority facilities [since Sept. 11],” says spokesman Dave Jamieson. Several tunnels leading to the city were shut or given travel parameters, such as no single-occupancy vehicles between certain hours on the Lincoln Tunnel. Since it lost its administrative offices, the Authority set up temporary offices at the Port Authority Technical Center. “We’re trying to keep everything moving so that everything can be as back to normal as possible,” Jamieson says. “We’re promoting that people use mass transit.” Less than two months prior to the attack, the land on which the World Trade Center stood was leased to Silverstein Properties for 99 years. It still remains to be seen what will be done with the land. NY, NJ transit keep moving In the midst of falling debris, employees from New York City Transit (NYCT) and New Jersey Transit (NJT) were hard at work. With a subway station located almost exactly under the middle of the World Trade Center plaza, NYCT acted immediately once it became clear the attacks were acts of terrorism. Subway service in the immediate vicinity was suspended following the initial incident reports and was shut down for about two hours. Customers, personnel and trains were removed from the affected area. “I don’t think there’s ever been a time when the subway was intentionally shut down,” says NYCT spokesman Al O’Leary of the system that carries 4.8 million passengers each day. Bus service continued to operate as close to normal as possible. Many were used to evacuate people from the scene. About 100 buses shuttled police, fire and construction crews to and from the site. “We wanted to keep as much running as possible and with maximum efficiency,” O’Leary says. NYCT also offered service through the use of 3,500 transit employees and 500 pieces of equipment that headed to the site of the debris. “There was a two-mile convoy of personnel and equipment to the site that night,” O’Leary says. Despite the chaos, NYCT managed to continue providing information throughout the event. MTA’s Website usually receives about 250,000 hits a day, but on Sept. 11 that number shot up to 7 million hits as New Yorkers sought to find out what was running and where. In the first few days following the attack, ridership on the subway system dropped to half of normal levels, and was down 70% on buses. Within a week, bus ridership was back to normal levels. Despite its successes above ground, NYCT’s subway infrastructure was affected. A 1,500-foot stretch of 1/9 subway tunnel near Cortland Street was rendered completely impassible. Its ceiling was caved in beneath thousands of tons of debris from the collapsed buildings. In places, steel beams from the towers’ upper floors pierced the tunnel roof and entered the subway. Taking a year to clean up the debris is an optimistic time frame, O’Leary says. Service on the N/R Lines through the vicinity was also disrupted and is expected to be out for up to six months. About 26 million gallons of water were pumped from the system before clean-up and shoring of the tunnel could begin. Because of the damage suffered by the system, NYCT’s Operations Planning Division needed to draw up new service plans for four subway corridors. Normally, each would have taken a year, but with the current emergency, the plans were drawn up in days. “We made decisions to improve capacity utilizing what pieces of the system we had left,” says Operations Planning’s Larry Gould. Under the instruction of NYCT President Larry Reuter, any repairs done to affected areas of the subway will not only be repairs of the existing infrastructure, but improvements to it. “There are many questions to be answered before work is done, including what will be done with the World Trade Center,” O’Leary says. Since the attacks, NYCT has had daily reminders that terrorism is unpredictable. Suspicious packages and substances have caused delays. “Something in the past that was a piece of lost property is now viewed through the prism of terrorism,” O’Leary says. “Right now it’s appropriate, even though it’s inconvenient, that every briefcase or knapsack left unattended is suspicious.” For several years, NYCT has participated in multi-agency disaster training with such organizations as the New York Police and Fire Departments. “We’ve trained for the worst possible … every horrible set of circumstances, but none like this,” O’Leary says. With between 5,000 and 8,000 jobs lost at the World Trade Center relocating to the New Jersey waterfront, New Jersey Transit had to maximize its system in a very short period of time. Making that feat difficult were such things as the closure of the Holland Tunnel, which carries 5,500 people per day via bus, and the shutdown of train service under the Hudson River. Despite that, trains were run on normal schedules, though the number of cars was increased to accommodate for nighttime rush hour traffic conditions. Travel between New Jersey and Manhattan surged 3% overnight and travel between Newark and Penn Station grew 45% in the days following the attack. Travel on the Hudson-Bergen light rail system shot up between 60% and 80%, with 6,000 new riders using the system. Several cars from the line had seats removed and were used to transport materials and rescue workers. “All the vehicles we could possibly put into service were put into service,” says NJT Executive Director Jeffrey Warsh. Amtrak is also honoring all NJT tickets, something only about 300 people a day are taking advantage of, Warsh says. Within five days after Sept. 11, NJT, in cooperation with the New Jersey Department of Transportation, designed, permitted, constructed and began service from a new ferry facility at Liberty State Park. Warsh says five times as many people are now using the ferry service across the Hudson River. While the transit system has been able to accommodate the influx of passengers now, that does not mean it will be able to in the future. “A lot of the giant surge in ridership eats into a gross that was supposed to accommodate us until 2010,” Warsh says. “As more people leave their cars, we’ll start to have a real problem.” To alleviate that problem, NJT is counting on a rail system to be built by 2010 or 2012. The $4 billion project will dig three deep tunnels under the city and carry riders to destinations in New York. Like at all other transit agencies, safety and security have been pushed to top priority. “We’ve been spending time for decades making sure the system is as safe and secure as it can be,” Warsh says. “I’m certainly spending a lot more time now on security than I have before.” NJT has received extra cooperation from all levels of law enforcement and has been using bomb-sniffing dogs to check out anything suspicious. NJT also runs its Transit on Patrol program, under which its 2,000 bus operators were deputized to report suspicious behavior, packages or criminal acts. That program has been in place since 1991. “This evil that has befallen us opens up a wider range of concerns than existed beforehand,” Warsh says. Despite it all, Warsh maintains that NJT’s 10,000 employees are handling the situation very well. He also says customers are exhibiting a greater deal of patience. D.C. moves into high gear When the Pentagon was hit, transit authorities in Washington, D.C., moved into high gear. The Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) promptly shuttled back out of the city the 200,000 people that just came in. Train service was stopped over the river and to the Pentagon and nearby airports. Bus drivers worked overtime and picked up people walking along the street who had no other means of transportation. “Employees felt compelled to stay in service without any direction,” says Chief Safety Officer Fred Goodine. “And not one passenger acted out.” While most passengers remain on good behavior, weekend ridership on the system has gone down, mainly as a result of decreased tourism in the city. “Washington is a ghost town,” says General Manager Richard White. “Ridership is down 20% to 30% on Saturday and Sunday.” Transit agencies are vulnerable to terrorist attacks because of the need to maintain an open system, he says. “You can’t button down the system. We’ve got to maintain our customer base,” White says. To help do that, WMATA has taken several measures to make riders feel safer. All trash containers and recycling bins were removed from revenue areas and explosive-proof models are being looked at as replacements. Bicycle lockers and newspaper vending boxes were moved or removed from station underpasses. A new daily “sweeps” program was implemented to ensure safety and security inspections of all facilities and additional uniformed and plainclothes officers remain deployed throughout the system. WMATA also requested $190 million for additional security detection, protection and security enhancements. Those include a fiber optic network for video recording devices, programmable intrusion equipment to alert police of the exact location of any unauthorized intrusion into the subway system, digital cameras installed on all buses and a back-up operations control center and command center. “It’s a question of needing it all at once instead of over time,” Goodine says. WMATA has also, for the past couple of years, been developing and experimenting with chemical sensors in two downtown stations. The PROTECT pilot program, the first project to adapt military technology to a subway environment, is still in the testing stages. The system will detect and identify toxic chemicals, map contaminated zones and predict directions in which the hazardous gases might spread so emergency crews can redirect trains and passengers. “We have our ear to the intelligence community,” Goodine says. “We’re operating in minutes, hours and days rather than days, weeks and months.” WMATA has also been the target of countless suspicious packages and substances, false bomb threats and even passenger threats. “I know many general managers who say they can’t sleep at night,” says White. “We have to prepare for a very sobering day that will be coming.” Realizing an evacuation of federal agencies in D.C. was imminent, the Virginia Railway Express (VRE) halted a northbound train in Manassas and ordered everyone off. The train was then run express to Alexandria, where it was set up to provide shuttle service to Manassas for the rest of the day. Most VRE equipment was trapped north of the 1st St. tunnel under the capitol. The tunnel was shut down until federal agents could conduct an inspection, says Dave Snyder, VRE’s superintendent of railroad services. Fredericksburg line service was supplemented with buses until the tunnel was reopened. “Some passengers, in panic, actually walked the three miles from the area near the Pentagon to Alexandria, down the railroad tracks because they knew the train would be waiting,” he says. Ridership on the system jumped 15% in the next several days after Sept. 11 and has remained about 10% higher than the previous week’s levels. Since October, VRE has worked with rail services on bridge and trestle protection and increased onboard undercover operatives and parking lot patrols. Passenger coaches are now inspected each morning before being dispatched. “We are working with our governing bodies to allow undercover federal officers from the many jurisdictions within Washington, D.C., free transportation on VRE in return for intelligence gathering and quick response onboard, if it is ever needed,” Snyder says. Effect on industry With a virtual shutdown of the nation’s air transportation system, ground transportation became the preferred way to travel in the days following the attack. It may have even become a new and only form of travel for many. Determining how the Sept. 11 attacks affected ridership on systems nationwide won’t be apparent for some time, but the event has had an obvious effect on transportation as an industry. “Our nation has entered into a new era in the history of transportation, an era in which one of our most cherished freedoms — the basic freedom of mobility — has been challenged,” says Transportation Secretary Norm Mineta. “But, if those who brought down one of America’s proudest buildings also believe they can bring down our faith in our transportation systems, we will emphatically prove them wrong. In the weeks and months ahead, we need to re-examine the adequacy of our security measures as we accelerate their implementation.” The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) is doing what it can to make sure members and the industry as a whole have the most effective safety measures in place. At the end of October, APTA, in conjunction with The Mineta Institute, held a one-day Transportation Security Symposium. The symposium was developed for transit executives and safety managers to share information and to learn more about counter-terrorism measures. “Pretty much all major transit systems have had in effect system safety program plans,” says Greg Hull, director of operations for safety and security programs at APTA. “The attacks caused the industry to revisit those plans.” For transit agencies, revisiting means ensuring the security plans are current, working relationships with external agencies (such as police and fire departments) are valid and preparedness scenarios and drills are planned. “Transit systems have gone to a higher level of alert. Employees are asked to be the eyes and ears to report anything that appears unusual or out of place,” Hull says. During its annual meeting at the beginning of October, APTA held a special forum called “Under Attack — Transit Responds,” which drew 600 attendees. The heads of NYCT, WMATA and the Port Authority Trans Hudson provided overviews of the security plans they have in place and what they were called upon to do on Sept. 11. They also discussed areas that transit systems may need to address, including making sure all staff is familiar with their responsibilities and the importance of practicing plans. APTA and its members raised money for a variety of emergency relief funds, including the United Way’s Sept. 11 fund. APTA President Bill Millar has been actively presenting the needs of the transit industry to House committees. “Systems are assisting in helping us understand what their current funding needs are,” Hull says. Those needs include capital funding, operations funding and research and development funding for added security at the transit agencies. Also during APTA’s annual meeting, Federal Transit Administrator Jenna Dorn told attendees that the Federal Transit Administration will play a “value-added role” in helping transit agencies prevent as well as respond to terrorism. During that month, the FTA sent out a toolbox of anti-terrorism material to 600 transit managers. The kits included best practices information and detailed guides and checklists on system safety and security. Dorn’s keys to terrorism prevention include:

  • Training and awareness of decision-makers.
  • Regular communication with other emergency agencies.
  • Drill, drill, drill.
  • Ready communication with the public on service plans. The FTA is also evaluating the need to purchase equipment and technology to enhance security, including protective gear for train operators and station managers and a chemical and explosive detection system for transit agencies. Transit systems are now required to spend 1% of their grants on security, but can stop spending money if they decide it’s not necessary. Ripple effect across U.S. Transit agencies around the country reacted to the Trade Center attacks by both bulking up security and performing charitably. The Houston Metro responded immediately to the closure of several downtown businesses following the attacks. The agency called in extra bus operators and, shortly after rush hour, outbound buses were taking office workers back home to the suburbs. Houston’s 100-mile high occupancy vehicle lane system became one-way outbound as buses filled with workers. Since that day, Metro police officers have become more visible throughout the agency’s 1,285-square-mile service area. Official security alerts with the Metro’s emergency preparedness procedures have gone out to Metro’s nearly 3,700 employees. The alerts include important Metro police phone numbers and urge employees to immediately report anything suspicious in and around Metro property. The agency has inspected all facilities and assessed them for security, and Metro increased its communication with other transit agencies to keep tabs on what’s happening elsewhere. “We all have to learn lessons from Sept. 11 and adapt,” says Tom Lambert, Metro’s vice president and chief of police. “But we also need to go on doing our business. The lifeblood of a community is the transportation network, and we need to keep it flowing — but with a higher awareness.” Metro’s emergency response plan began several years ago when Metro police established working relationships with several other law enforcement agencies in its service area. Lambert said the law enforcement partnerships in place already are helping with increased communication and awareness throughout the Houston region. “The way this agency rallied to get commuters home after the Sept. 11 attacks really made me proud,” says Metro President and CEO Shirley DeLibero. “Safety is always our No. 1 priority, but now we’re going about providing public transportation with an even more heightened sense of security and caution.” To protect its civilian bus drivers, Austin’s Capital Metro had armed Austin police drive eight buses that shuttled 300 travelers from the immobilized Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to local hotels. “We needed Capital Metro, but we didn’t want to put civilian bus operators in harms way,” says Sgt. John Jones of the Austin Police Department. Eleven police officers out of the 56 that make up most of Capital Metro’s security team were trained to drive buses through an extensive 40-hour training course. In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County immediately implemented a series of actions to help protect customers and employees while safeguarding its facilities. Following notification of the attacks, all on-duty Port Authority police and security officers were placed on heightened alert and instructed to be aware of any suspicious activities or persons. Meetings also took place with various law enforcement officials at the Pittsburgh office of the FBI, where Port Authority police remained a presence for several days. Loading docks were closed and people entering Port Authority facilities were required to show proper I.D. before being granted access. Police remained on-site 24 hours a day at all bus operating locations for the next week. All available bus and rail operators, along with extra maintenance crew, were called upon to report for duty and extra bus and rail service was dispatched to evacuate the city. The Port Authority closed its subway at 3 p.m. that day as a precautionary measure and did not reopen until the start of rush hour service the following day. As a result of the attacks, the Port Authority is procuring special breathing devices for its police and safety personnel. It is also considering gas and chemical detection equipment for its subway. Six new police officers were hired to its existing force of 39 police officers and 20 security officers. “Due to the Port Authority’s quick response and the fact that the Authority’s bus, rail and incline network of services is considered a safe way to travel, ridership levels remain strong and consistent following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks,” says Port Authority spokeswoman Judi McNeil. On the West Coast, San Francisco’s Bay Area Rapid Transit has increased police presence and undertaken additional steps to increase safety. Police personnel had their schedules adjusted to provide additional presence and officers are checking trains at selected stations. Public restrooms were closed and passengers are being requested to report any unusual or suspicious activity. Ridership at BART was not impacted significantly and returned to average ranges within about four days of the attacks. On the day of the attack, the Big Blue Bus in Santa Monica, Calif., helped to evacuate several office buildings in downtown Los Angeles by putting additional buses into service. The agency also operated a free shuttle from Santa Monica City Hall to the Red Cross blood donation center. During the past 18 months, the Big Blue Bus implemented a series of programs to provide operators with the means to defend themselves, says Steve Walsh, manager of safety and security. Those programs include: dealing with difficult people (a verbal tactics program), a physical tactics program, a use-of-force policy designed to provide clear direction on acceptable levels of defense and training in the use of pepper spray. “Employees who complete the programs are issued a canister of pepper spray and a belt-pouch to carry it,” he says. Several transit agencies, including the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority and StarTran in Lincoln, Neb., provided free rides. In Cleveland, those donating blood were given free trips. StarTran held a “Ride for America” day, where donations for disaster relief funds were accepted in lieu of fares. The effects of the attack also reached America’s Northern neighbors. In Toronto, companies closed early the day of the attack and the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) introduced rush hour service on the subway. GO Transit brought all of its buses into service and three extra 10-car trainsets ran. “Combined with TTC and effective bus meets (GO Transit buses, York Regional Transit, Mississauga Transit and Brampton Transit) at the terminal subway stations, we managed to handle the early rush hour crowds effectively,” said Gary McNeil, managing director and COO of GO Transit, in an APTA online forum. A scheduled Sept. 25 GO train/tanker truck emergency simulation was deferred until 2002 due to copycat fears and the need for emergency service to remain focused on the reaction to Sept. 11, he says. “Life is slowly returning to ‘normal,’ but it is a different world in Canada also,” McNeil says. More security measures Many agencies are going one step further to enhance security. Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority formed an antiterrorism task force for its subway and rail system. Some of the options the task force will explore include poison-gas detectors, explosion-resistant trash barrels and more sophisticated video surveillance. The task force is composed of law enforcement officials appointed by the MBTA general manager and was scheduled to report its findings near the beginning of November. Since the attacks, the MBTA nearly tripled the size of its police patrols riding trains and subways. Miami-Dade Transit in Florida has plexiglass shields in place for operators in its buses. “Some operators feel ‘closed up’ and others love it for the protection it provides,” says Derrick Gordon, an assistant general superintendent at the system. “The shields have thwarted numerous attacks and assaults from being carried out against our operators. The plastic shields stop bricks, bottles and punches from hitting our operators.” Since the attacks, security and I.D. display were heightened and mandatory, he says. San Diego Trolley annually meets with local emergency response agencies. The San Diego Police Department SWAT team assists in conducting drills on light rail equipment, buses and commuter rail equipment. “These exercises inform them of access into each vehicle and ways of disabling equipment due to a hijacking, or worse,” says Andy Goddard, systems safety administrator for the Trolley. San Diego Transit placed uniformed guards on its buses in an attempt to make passengers and drivers feel safer. Fifteen unarmed guards are transferring between 330 buses in order to cover several routes throughout the day. Before the attacks, the transit agency had 11 plainclothes security guards who rode buses on routes with a high rate of vandalism and fights. Security was also tightened at San Diego Transit’s bus storage and maintenance facility, where a guard is on duty 24 hours a day. Also tightening the amount of security on its property, Ride On in Montgomery County, Md., added more fences, lighting and security cameras. “We are also trying to hire more security guards and police dedicated to transit,” says Alfie Steele, manager of central communications for Ride On. Since Ride On is an agency of the county government, much of its facilities security is handled by the county police or an internal security department. Following the attack, the agency has detoured buses around the federal facilities on its routes. “This is causing problems for employees and visitors to those facilities,” Steele says. “The re-routing has also caused reduced service to customers in communities close by those facilities.” Many transit agencies are also turning to bomb-sniffing dogs and undercover cops as extra precautions. For external assistance, The Mineta Institute will begin offering peer reviews, sending someone out to a transit property to check its safety and security procedures and help identify vulnerabilities. The Palisades Group USA and BERG Associates teamed up to assist transit agencies in reviewing and updating their counter-terrorism security plans, policies and procedures. Amtrak service soars Stepping up to the plate following the closure of airports and the subsequent decrease in flights, Amtrak did its job as a national transportation provider. Since Sept. 11, ridership on Amtrak has jumped significantly, with daily average ridership rising 17% the first week after the attacks and between 8% and 12% in October. On its long-distance services, ridership increased 35% the first week and 10% to 15% in October. Reservations on its Acela Express shot up 40% to 50% as of Oct. 1. To account for the increase, additional railcars were placed into service, adding nearly 4,000 extra seats per day. “We were the only game in town those days immediately following the attacks and did our best to accommodate,” says Vernae Graham, spokeswoman for Amtrak West. “A lot of people were stranded, and we were glad to help.” Immediately following the attacks, Amtrak service was suspended and put on the highest level security alert. Trains en route were stopped and moved to nearby stations for inspection. Several stations in the cities affected, including New York’s Penn Station, were evacuated and sealed off. Most trains were back up by mid-afternoon after all inspections were completed and security forces were in place, Graham says. Amtrak also dispatched its 325 police officers, most of which preside over the Northeast Corridor. To help accommodate the increase in riders and to secure funding for more and better security, Amtrak proposed an Emergency Funding Package. The original amount requested was $3.2 billion, but that number was reduced to $1.8 billion after its introduction to the House. The money would be spent on such things as upgrading bridges, tracks and stations and repairing and buying new train cars and locomotives. The funding would also help get more Amtrak police in place. “It addresses the needs of security issues … and will allow us to meet the demand since Sept. 11,” Graham says. Amtrak was also active in assisting those involved in the tragedy. The rail service provided transportation to friends and families of victims, emergency service workers and flight crews. It also transported thousands of emergency relief packages to New York as part of a Red Cross relief effort. Its Empire Builder trains, which were recently launched, brought fresh fruit from Washington state to New York in a refrigerated car attached to the back of the train. Amtrak also aided the U.S. Postal Service by delivering 237 extra carloads of mail than normal. As for its passengers, in the days following the attacks Amtrak honored airline and Greyhound tickets. Numbers of how many passengers participated were unavailable at press time. As an added measure of security, Amtrak is requiring that all passengers present photo I.D. when purchasing a ticket both onboard a train and at ticket booths. As cases present themselves, any suspicious packages and substances are removed and inspected, Graham says. With the recent threats of anthrax, Graham says that passengers seem to have a heightened sense of awareness, but they are not deterred from riding the trains. “It will be interesting to see what this country does as far as holiday travel,” she says, noting that during Thanksgiving, the most heavily traveled day all year, the system is usually at capacity. The important role Amtrak is playing in providing nationwide transportation service comes into play during a time when the system is struggling to meets its goal of being self-sufficient. It also calls into question the benefits of a national high-speed rail system, for which a bill requesting $71 billion to fund the creation of such a network was submitted to Congress in September. “The dialogue has definitely been put on the front burner,” Graham says.
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