Lawmakers: Only so much can be done to secure railways, but TSA should do more

TSA Administrator John Pistole told the panel his agency was trying to do more, but he agreed it was limited because of the nature of railways.

"Due to the large populations and substantial infrastructure served by mass transit and national railroad systems, these networks remain a target for terrorist groups," Pistole said. "Moreover, an open architecture connecting millions of passengers in major metropolitan areas creates inherent potential security vulnerabilities. TSA thus employs advanced risk-based, intelligence-driven techniques to prevent terrorist attacks and to reduce the vulnerability of the nation’s transportation systems to terrorism."

The issue of railway security returned to the forefront of the political landscape in Washington when intelligence was found in the raid on bin Laden's Pakistani compound that revealed he envisioned attacking trains on the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

The ranking Republican on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), said there has been improvements to rail security since that day, but "the challenge of securing rail and mass transit systems is enormous."

"Security at airports is now the responsibility of the federal government, but security at subway, bus, and rail stations is largely in the purview of mass transit providers in partnership with state and local governments," she said. "It is vitally important that the federal government, in concert with local partners, help to ensure the transit providers and local officials have the equipment and training to plan for and respond to terrorist threats — while ensuring taxpayer dollars are spent efficiently."

Pistole said Wednesday that TSA was doing just that.

"TSA secures and safeguards mass transit and railroad operations through a variety of programs," he said. "Many of these programs enhance security by addressing policy gaps, enhancing coordination, and maximizing the use of partner strengths and capabilities as addressed in the March 2010 Surface Transportation Security Priority Assessment."

Lieberman added that there is "a lot more going on to protect mass transit than is visible."

Security is "a lot more visible in the air system than on mass transit and buses," he said.