WASHINGTON – The federal government Tuesday began testing asystem for screening rail passengers and baggage for explosives, areaction in part to the March 11 train bombings in Madrid thatclaimed 191 lives.
If the 30-day test at the New Carrollton, Md., Amtrak andcommuter-rail station proves effective, the screening system willbe put to limited use across the country at train stations whereauthorities receive intelligence that a terrorist attack may beimminent, said Asa Hutchinson, Homeland Security undersecretary forborder and transportation security.
The testing, which will take place during weekday rush hours aswell as on Sundays from 3 to 6 p.m., will affect the 1,000-plusdaily passengers who board MARC, the Maryland commuter-rail line,and Amtrak trains at New Carrollton.
Passengers who showed up at the start of the afternoon rush hourTuesday were briefly delayed in a five-minute line as they passedthrough a device, resembling an airport metal detector, that checksfor traces of explosives. Homeland Security officials said the “iontracker” samples the air around arriving passengers for suchtraces.
At the same time, passengers’ bags were sent through asophisticated X-ray machine that creates three-dimensional imagesof the bags’ contents to scan for signs of explosives.
Any passenger or bag that sets off the alarm during the testingperiod will be subject to further scrutiny, officials said.
Hutchinson said that in addition to the baggage and passengerscreening, the pilot program calls for security patrols withbomb-sniffing dogs.
Passengers screened Tuesday seemed to be in agreement that thesecurity measures were worth the delay.
“I don’t mind” the wait, said George Polo, a systems engineerfrom Washington. But if the system were ever put in placenationwide, “it would be an incredible hassle,” he said.
A nationwide program to screen long-distance rail passengers andlocal commuters would pose enormous organizational challenges. Thesheer numbers of travelers and stations would make such a systemextremely difficult and expensive to implement across thecountry.
Unlike at airports, the New Carrollton passengers are beingscreened only for explosives; screeners will not be searching forsmall knives, scissors, box cutters and other items that have beenbanned from airplanes since the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackings.
Hutchinson said his department plans to eventually test thesystem on stored baggage in Washington’s Union Station and ontrains in July.
“The purpose is to test the screening systems so that if thereis a specific threat or need,” the technology can be quickly put inplace, he said. “How we measure this is whether we preventexplosives from getting on trains.”
Hutchinson said the administration had no plans to install therail-security program nationwide at this point, nor is it likely tobe used in subway systems.
Although the administration began planning for the rail-securitysystem before the Madrid bombings, that terrorist attack addedurgency to the program.
–The Philadelphia Inquirer