Buses and trains are inherently vulnerable to terrorism. That's why a new report by Congress' in-house watchdog agency may be a frightening wake-up call.
More than two years after train attacks in Madrid, Spain, and three months after the subway and bus bombings in London, the United States still hasn't completed a risk assessment of transit systems, according to the Government Accountability Office.
The Transportation Security Administration has missed deadline after deadline.
Why is a risk assessment important? In its Oct. 20 report titled Passenger Rail Security, the GAO argues that the TSA can't make sound decisions about where to spend its time and money until it understands more about each city's transportation system.
Tardiness isn't the only issue.
The report also criticizes the TSA for issuing eyebrow-raising security directives after the Madrid attacks. For example, U.S. transit providers were told to install bomb-resistant trash cans at train stops, but they were not warned that the containers, which are designed to direct a blast upward, shouldn't be used in underground stations.
Rail agencies were told to lock engineer compartments to prevent a terrorist from seizing control of a train. But on many trains, those doors double as emergency escape hatches, and under Federal Railroad Administration safety regulations, they must remain unlocked.
That directive hit home on the Trinity Railway Express, which is installing panic bars on some trains so the doors can be locked during normal operation but opened in a crisis.
Amtrak was told to check the identification of all adult passengers, even though the rail company has no access to a criminal database or a terrorist watch list.
Hundreds of transit agencies were directed to provide the TSA with security assessments, but few consulting firms can help agencies do that kind of work, so a backlog ensued. It took the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as the T, 18 months to hire somebody.
"The federal government has not put enough emphasis or money into transit security," authority President Dick Ruddell said. "They're doing more now, but they haven't done enough."
ONLINE: www.gao.gov (keyword "rail")