Calls for rail security upgrades stop short of airport screening techniques

The news that Osama bin Laden was considering attacking U.S. trains at the time of his death has caused renewed concern about rail security, but not many people have gotten on board with mimicking airport security techniques.

Intelligence discovered in bin Laden's Pakistani compound showed al Qaeda was thinking about marking the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks by targeting railways.

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But even ardent supporters of stepping up the precautions taken on the rails are not calling for airport-like scrutiny for train trips.

The Transportation Security Administration said this week that it was “reviewing protective measures for all potential terrorist targets, including critical infrastructure and transportation systems across the country.”

But the agency also said, “We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the U.S. rail sector.”

That has not stopped advocates from calling for more investment in rail security.

It would be a big change for Congress, which in the decade since Bin Laden coordinated attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon has focused more on airport safety. Since Sept. 11, 2001, Congress has created a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security and the TSA specifically to run airport security. But now it is time for Congress to lavish the same attention on the rail system, APTA President William Millar has said.

“I am not surprised by the new reports that Osama bin Laden had considered attacking U.S. rail,” Millar said this week in a statement. “Unfortunately, trains and buses have long been terrorist targets throughout the world.”

With bin Laden’s posthumous threat now as a backdrop, Millar pointed out that the recent budget deal to avert a government shutdown cut funding for transportation security by $50 million. Even the $300 million proposed for next year by President Obama, who champions railways, is insufficient to keep them safe, Millar said.

“The low level of funding for transit security is out of step with terrorist threats,” he said. “Based on a survey that was released last year, U.S. public transportation systems need $6.4 billion over five years to meet transit security needs.” 

Some members of Congress seem poised to agree.

Senate Surface Transportation Committee Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said Friday that his committee would hold hearings soon on stepping up security on America’s rails in the wake of the bin Laden plot.

“The documents seized at Osama bin Laden’s compound are a wake up call for America,” Lautenberg said in a statement.  “When it comes to threats to our national security, trains are a prime target and must be better secured."

“Terrorists have attacked rail systems around the world and we’ve seen the devastating consequences in Moscow, Madrid, London and Mumbai,” Lautenberg continued. “Now we have a handwritten note from Osama bin Laden’s compound targeting rail systems in the United States.  We need to stop cutting security funding for our surface transportation network, and get to work protecting our railways from real threats.”

Perhaps tellingly though, neither Lautenberg nor APTA is calling for using the types of X-ray technology and pat downs like the TSA does in airports.