At press time, the war in Iraq was in full throttle. By the time you read this, I hope it’s over. Even if the war has been successfully concluded, however, the threat of terrorism will remain. Which brings me to a recent train trip I made from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C., and back.
I’m generally not an anxious traveler, which is a good thing since I log so many business miles each year, but I couldn’t fail to notice that Amtrak didn’t check my baggage or my person before letting me get on the train. And it wasn’t just me. Amtrak
wasn’t checking any of my fellow passengers either.
Like I said, I don’t scare easily. But the thought occurred to me that a terrorist could rather easily check a bag filled with explosives on an Amtrak train. Or he could simply carry it aboard in a briefcase. I’m mentioning Amtrak not because it’s more vulnerable than other rail systems, but simply because I’m familiar with it. In addition, it’s a high-profile system, making it a more likely terrorist target than a light rail or commuter rail system.
Straight to the source
To find out more about Amtrak’s security system, I called its Washington headquarters and spoke with a knowledgeable media relations officer who assured me that Amtrak security is as tight as funding and other imperatives will allow.
She told me that Amtrak stations will never be as buttoned down as airports, with their array of metal detectors, bomb-detecting baggage inspections and the like. “To close the entire system would be nearly impossible,“ she said. “We have 500 stations in 46 states. Some are large, and some are very small.”
Increasing security at larger stations is being considered, but she couldn’t discuss the details.
“We’re looking at a lot of alternatives,” she said. “We’re also in constant contact with the FBI and the Transportation Security Administration.”
As you might expect, Amtrak has enhanced its security since the attacks of Sept. 11 and the start of the war in Iraq. It has bolstered its police presence at stations and on trains, both with uniformed and plainclothes officers. It also has instituted random baggage screens and uses bomb-sniffing canines.
Currently, Amtrak’s police officers are working 12- hour days systemwide. The canine units, I understand, are also pulling overtime.
Thousands of other Amtrak employees have been conscripted into the fight against terrorism. These conductors and other customer-contact employees have been briefed on identifying suspicious people and baggage. “They are our eyes and ears,” the spokeswoman said. “If they see anything suspicious, they report it immediately to Amtrak police.”
The FBI is watching
Don’t think that you can ride Amtrak without Big Brother looking over your shoulder. Identification, such as a photo ID, is required for passage, and the check-in system is linked to the FBI’s security watch list. It’s doubtful, however, that a terrorist would use his real name if he’s being watched by the FBI, but you never know.
After speaking with the Amtrak representative, I felt more comfortable with the security of the system. The fact that the gentleman sitting next to me might actually be a plainclothes Amtrak policeman rather than a dog-shampoo sales rep traveling to a veterinary convention in Baltimore is somehow comforting.
These days, security cannot be taken for granted. The people at Amtrak are doing the best they can with limited resources. “We’re doing everything in our power,” the spokeswoman assured me. I hope the transit and motorcoach operators around the country are following suit.