U.S. Rail Ready For Security Challenges

Posted on June 16, 2011 by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor - Also by this author

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Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deploys canines throughout the L.A. Metro system daily. Pictured is Metro Transit Security Officer Henry Solis and canine officer explosives detection dog, Nakita, at Union Station Metro Red Line station platform.
Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department deploys canines throughout the L.A. Metro system daily. Pictured is Metro Transit Security Officer Henry Solis and canine officer explosives detection dog, Nakita, at Union Station Metro Red Line station platform.
On May 1, after a U.S. strike team had killed Osama bin Laden, transit agencies nationwide increased their levels of security to prepare for any possible retaliatory attacks and asked the public to look for and report any suspicious activity. While no transit systems reported receiving any threats, agencies kept up continued vigilance following the news.

However, many, including Amtrak and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro) had taken precautionary measures long before the news about Bin Laden came to light. Both agencies have conducted more vigilant track inspections, increased outreach to their partners and passengers, upgraded surveillance technology, and beefed up training with help from the local and federal government.

Additionally, Amtrak President Joseph Boardman, pointed out to Congress in May, soon after the news surfaced of threats to the U.S. rail system unearthed from Bin Laden's compound, that both the Federal Rail Administration and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are aggressively researching additional ways to provide safeguards on the tracks and encouraged Congress to continue to fund those efforts to bring those projects to fruition, according to John O'Connor, chief of police, Amtrak.

More frequent inspections

Amtrak recently stepped up security and increased police canine patrols and track inspections and is working more closely with other enforcement agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security, O'Connor, says.

Bag checks, which have long been part of the agency's security practices, are now taking place more frequently and are conducted both independently and in partnership with the TSA, at random as well as in multiple cities on multiple dates.

"You never know if you get on a train in Washington, D.C.; Philadelphia; Baltimore; New York or some other part of the country, [whether] we might be setting up a bag screening operation," O'Connor says.

The agency also upped the frequency of its rail track inspections after specific threats from Al Qaeda, determined in a note recovered in bin Laden's compound that contained plans for derailing trains.

"[Former Defense] Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of his famous sayings was, 'You don't know what you don't know.' It's very hard to go out against that," O'Connor says. "In this instance, we do know what we know. [bin Laden] was speaking about derailing a train, so in my perspective we would be remiss if we didn't make sure that our security counter-measures didn't take that threat into consideration."

Track inspection entails making sure that the tracks are not tampered with and are secured in a safe manner. Operators physically inspect the tracks to make sure that someone hasn't tampered with them or placed objects on the tracks that might derail the train. There are a number of safeguards and fail-safes in the normal operation of the trains that make them safe, O'Connor says, but the physical inspections are an extra precaution to ensure the fail-safes are working and no one has tampered with the tracks.

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