White House: Nation's railways are safe

The White House sought Monday to reassure the traveling public that railways around the nation were safe after reports al Qaeda was plotting an attack on U.S. trains.

“Obviously, we take the issue of passenger rail safety very seriously,” White House press secretary Jay Carney told reporters during his daily press briefing.

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Information about a possible attack on the U.S. rail system was found amid the documents and hard drives recovered during last Sunday’s raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda was planning to execute it later this year, on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, according to reports.

Carney said safety concerns were the reason the warnings about the plot were released.

“No specific or imminent threat, but enough of a concern to put out that alert,” he said.

Some lawmakers are already calling for expanded screening of train passengers. One, Sen. Charles Schumer, wants to create a “Do Not Ride” list patterned after airports’ no-fly list.

“Anyone, even a member of al Qaeda, could purchase a train ticket and board an Amtrak train without so much as a question asked,” Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a weekend interview with WCBS radio in New York.

He noted that last year Amtrak transported 28.7 million passengers, which translates to 78,000 passengers every day.

But Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood urged caution.

“We’re going to look at the information from bin Laden’s house and see what’s in there and see if [there] were any threats they were thinking about for trains,” LaHood said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “For now, riding trains is safe.”

He added: “I took the train here last evening from Washington to New York, from Union Station to Penn Station, and … it was very safe and people were enjoying the ride.”

LaHood agreed with Schumer that making railways safer was a priority, but he stopped short of embracing the senator’s “Do Not Ride” proposal.

“We’ll work with Congress on this,” he said.

Schumer is not the only lawmaker calling for a re-evaluation of the safety of America’s railways.

Senate Surface Transportation subcommittee Chairman Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) said last week that he would hold hearings about railroad security.

 “Terrorists have attacked rail systems around the world, and we’ve seen the devastating consequences in Moscow, Madrid, London and Mumbai,” Lautenberg said. “Now we have a handwritten note from Osama bin Laden’s compound targeting rail systems in the United States.”

Outside groups are encouraging Congress to boost federal funding for rail safety measures, despite the desire of Republicans in the House majority to slash overall spending. The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) has pointed out that the recent budget deal to avert a government shutdown cut funding for transportation security by $50 million.

Even the $300 million President Obama proposed for next year is insufficient to keep railways safe, APTA President William Millar said.

“The low level of funding for transit security is out of step with terrorist threats,” he said in a statement. “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.”

But Carney dismissed the notion that the Obama administration has not done enough to keep trains safe.

“We … continue to work in ways seen and unseen to ensure that rail travel remains safe for Americans,” he said. “And we are hyper-vigilant as ever, but even more so in the wake of obviously this significant mission and its success because of the potential for revenge attacks or anything like that.”

Carney said regular train passengers could tell effort has been put into securing them, though it might not always be in noticeable ways.

“I think there has been stepped-up security, as anyone who travels by rail knows, I mean, certainly since 2001,” he said. “And there are measures that are taken, seen and unseen, every day to improve our security — transportation security by rail as well as by air.”

However, Carney did not name any specific techniques that have been used.

“I don’t have anything more specific than that for you, but we are obviously very vigilant about this issue,” he said when pressed about the absence of metal detectors in most train stations.

The discussion in Washington comes as LaHood announced Monday the allocation of more than $2 billion in high-speed rail that had once been offered to Florida. Money was given to projects in the Northeast, Midwest and California.


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