By LISA HOFFMAN
Scripps Howard News Service
July 07, 2005
Every weekday in Chicago, riders take more than 1.5 million trips on the elevated railway line, which encompasses 288 miles of track.
Each year in Washington, D.C., Metrorail subway passengers traveling in 840 rail cars make more than 200 million trips.
In all, during the average workweek in America, public buses, trains and subways transport more than 14 million people every day. In a single month, they carry more passengers than U.S. airlines carry in a year.
Given those statistics, how can America prevent a mass-transit terror attack like the one that stunned London on Thursday, a multiple subway and bus bombing that left at least 40 dead and 700 injured?
The answer from homeland security experts is that it is virtually impossible to deter determined terrorists without the infusion of hundreds of billions of dollars and the imposition of draconian searches of millions of passengers and their bags.
Add to that the attractiveness of mass transit to those bent on causing big casualty counts and triggering widespread fear, and it is virtually certain that U.S. passenger rail and bus systems will remain in the sights of terrorists, the experts say.
"For those determined to kill in quantity and willing to kill indiscriminately, public transportation offers an ideal target," Rand Corp. terrorism analyst Brian Jenkins said in a recent report.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff announced Thursday that the nation's "inter-city passenger rail, subways and metropolitan bus systems" have been put under an "orange," or high, alert - a notch higher than the yellow, or elevated, level on which the rest of the country remains.
Chertoff and officials at the Transportation Security Administration offered reassurances that no specific threats have been detected recently against the nation's transit systems, which the Bush administration said are vastly more secure since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.
Since 9/11, U.S. mass-transportation anti-terror strategy has focused on such measures as removing trash cans that could hide bombs on subway platforms, installing closed-circuit surveillance systems and training personnel and educating passengers in spotting suspicious people and activities.
The Homeland Security Department and the transport security office have conducted tests to see whether screening purses, briefcases and luggage can be made feasible for transit systems, and have sent biological and chemical-detection units to several cities. Federal grants have paid for local emergency-response drills, and systems that allow instant communication between Washington and the 30 largest transit agencies around the country have been established.
To the American Public Transportation Association, the transit industry's trade group in Washington, the federal efforts have fallen way short. The $250 million in federal security funds that have been doled out don't begin to meet the $6 billion in security needs the organization's members identified in a survey last year, association president William Millar said Thursday.
"Since 9/11 the federal government's funding of transit security has been woefully inadequate," Millar said in a statement, noting that the aviation industry has received more than $18 billion for security improvements.
Millar singled out the Senate for criticism, calling on the lawmakers to restore the $50 million in transit grants cut by the Senate Committee on Appropriations last month. A debate on that issue is expected on the Senate floor next week.
In Washington's Metrorail system, the increased terror alert level translated Thursday into the deployment of "special response teams" and explosives-sniffing K-9 patrols. Transit police officers donned special vests so passengers could quickly identify them and point out anything that looked suspicious. Undercover police posed as passengers. And the public address system regularly broadcast reminders for everyone to stay alert.
"We ... are asking our customers to be an extension of our eyes and ears and let us know if they see anything unusual," Metro Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson said in a recorded message.
At the Eastern Market Metro station, eight blocks from the U.S. Capitol, Metro custodian Nelly Rider got nervous when a rider left a metallic coffee mug on top of a ticket booth and walked away.
She summoned her supervisor, who stood a few feet from the booth along with another Metro employee, pondering how to react. Deciding not to call in a "rapid reaction" squad, the supervisor put on a pair of work gloves and warily approached the machine.
"If it's my time to go, it's my time," the boss said. It wasn't. The cup held nothing but coffee.
Afterward, custodian Rider was clearly shaken. "You see what happened in London this morning ... it's very scary. Very scary," she said.
Scripps Howard News Service reporter Tara Copp contributed to this story.
Publish A Letter on SitNews Read Letters/Opinions
Submit A Letter to the Editor