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Security Experts Assess the Terrorist Threat to US Rail System

A man abandons his car on a California railroad crossing, causing two trains to collide. Eleven people are killed and nearly 200 are injured.

A train carrying hazardous chemicals derails in South Carolina. Chlorine gas leaks out, killing nine people. Hundreds of residents are evacuated from the area.

These recent incidents - on the heels of al-Qaeda's deadly attack on a Madrid passenger train last March -- have some U.S. security experts worried about the vulnerability of America's rail system. They are concerned that terrorists could sabotage parts of the nation's 225,000 kilometers of rail track, place a bomb aboard a busy commuter train, or blow up a freight car carrying hazardous cargo.

"I don't think the [Bush] Administration has done enough," says David Heyman, director of the Homeland Security Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. "There's more to be done to protect the rails from suspicious activity and malicious intent."

Mr. Heyman says few security changes are apparent in most of the country. "There are increased numbers of security cameras in certain locations, and in some places they are now checking IDs to see if the person who bought the ticket is the person who's getting on the train," he says. "But, by and large, you don't see much more additional security."

But U.S. government officials insist that rail security in the United States has improved since the Madrid bombing. Transportation Security Administration spokesman Mark Hatfield says passenger and freight trains are safer than ever, for a number of reasons.

"We've been putting more and more bomb-sniffing dogs into airports and into the train environment to get at the possibility of planted explosives or suicide bombers," he says. "We're using technology first deployed in the aviation environment and translated to work in the rail and mass transit environment. There's a host of other technology efforts underway from biological and hazardous materials sensors to just low-tech things like fencing, increased patrols, video surveillance, and intrusion detectors. It's really a very complex and multi-dimensional effort."

But the nation's rail system is also complex, with large segments of track unmonitored and unprotected. Jack Riley, an analyst with the public policy Rand Corporation, estimates that it could cost billions of dollars to secure them.

"The reality is we can not protect everything in this country 24 hours a day, seven days a week," he says. "Protecting fixed assets that rely on open architecture to serve their function is very difficult -- train stations, trains themselves. A typical train stop is on the order of a minute or less. You have to have lots of doors, lots of capacity to move lots of people in and off the trains very quickly."

Still, Mr. Riley dismisses worries about a terrorist threat to U-S rail transportation as being exaggerated. "We've had hazardous materials being routed through our communities for many decades," he notes. "While the specter of terrorism adds a different dimension, the terrorists don't have the ability to be everywhere at once and commit an unlimited number of attacks."

Mr. Riley argues that terrorists want to commit "huge, spectacular attacks" like the deadly strikes on iconic buildings in New York and Washington in 2001. "Unless there's a major change in their targeting tactics in how they operate or how they attempt to operate in this country," he says, "it's not clear to me that a rail attack in this country is what they're going to burn their limited capability to carry out these kinds of attacks on."

David Heyman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies disagrees. "That kind of logic is the same kind of logic that says we didn't have a history of planes going into buildings," he says. "We have to realize there's a terrorist threat with a capability to adapt its tactics and innovate that hasn't been seen before."

He cites al-Qaeda attacks that have ranged from using speedboats to strike the USS Cole to using airplanes as missiles. "These types of innovations are the kind of things which makes us gives pause," he says. "Since we've seen it with airplanes, we are concerned with trains. Since we've seen bombs on trains in Europe, we're concerned about it in America."

Mr. Heyman recommends the same kind of tough security measures on trains that we now see on planes -- including careful screening of passengers and cargo -- despite the long

lines and schedule delays that would inevitably result.