Rail Security Rises to the Forefront

Rail security is yet again a high priority for lawmakers and commuter rail operators after terrorists tried to bomb a train tunnel in New York City and killed about 200 commuters with bombs in India.

Meanwhile, Congress is looking at options for rail security legislation on both passenger and freight railroads.

Last week, the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee approved a bill that would give commuter railroads an opportunity to dip into a $3.5 billion fund for rail security and capital improvements.

The Public Transportation Security Assistance Act of 2006, H.R. 5808, authorizes the Transportation Department to award grants to public transportation agencies for security improvements through 2009.

The bill authorizes $2.48 billion for capital grants and $900 million for operational security assistance for public transportation.

To be eligible for grants, transit systems would have to develop athreat and vulnerability assessment in cooperation with the Department of Homeland Security. After drafting a list of priorities, it would then be submitted to the Department of Transportation for a review and grant allocation.

Reactions in Cities Vary

The repercussions from the terrorist bombings in Mumbai, India, July 11 are being felt in the United States as passenger rail systems tighten security.

In major cities, police are expanding their surveillance of passengers and packages on commuter rail systems.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.) said the attacks in India are "yet another wake-up call for our own rail security system, which unfortunatelyremains extremely vulnerable to similar attacks."

The New York City Police Department is gathering information aboutthe bombings from federal law enforcement officers and internationalsources. New York police followed the same procedures that they usedafter the Madrid train bombings in 2004 and the explosions on the London transit system last year, which included increasing the number of transit officers during rush hours.

Los Angeles sent extra sheriff's deputies and bomb-sniffing dogs to check major transit hubs. The Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority played recorded messages over loudspeakers asking passengers to watch for suspicious packages. And in Washington, recorded messages asking passengers to be alert for suspicious activity were played more frequently than usual.

Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff said there is no "specific or credible" intelligence report indicating a threat to U.S. transit systems.

Nevertheless, U.S. and Lebanese authorities this month stopped a potential terrorist attack on a rail tunnel connecting New York and New Jersey that could have involved suicide bombers on trains. Some reports say terrorists also planned to blow up part of the slurry wall that separates the Hudson River from the site of the former World Trade Center in an attempt to flood Ground Zero and the surrounding area.

One legislative effort to increase rail security failed by the narrowest of margins when Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) proposed spending an additional $1.1 billion for rail security in the fiscal 2007 Homeland Security appropriations bill.

More Legislation is Pending

The amendment proposed spending $670 million to improve rail tunnels in the Northeast corridor; $250 million for security upgrades to freight railroads; $65 million for Amtrak security, including $25 million to hire 200 new security guards and increase the pay for current officers by 25 percent; and $100 million for research and developmentinto rail security techniques.

A 50-50 vote on the amendment showed the Senate could not reach anagreement. Senate Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) was the chief critic of the proposal, sayingmore rail security funding would exceed spending limits in the Senate's budget bill.

Biden said after the vote that the Senate would regret not spending more to improve rail security.

Gregg recommended using other funding sources, such as spending a greater portion of the more $1 billion annual subsidy for Amtrak on rail security and capital improvements. In addition, states and citiescould use their homeland security grants on rail security, Gregg said.