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Yesterday brought a big change to Amtrak. Passengers can now bring unloaded guns onto some of its trains.

As Catherine Welch of member station WRNI reports, the policy, ordered by Congress, reverses a gun ban that was in place since 9/11.

CATHERINE WELCH: Baggage handlers load suitcases and duffle bags into a cold and windowless train car. Handler Matt Falkenstein(ph) points out a new addition to the baggage car, a teal blue locker the size of a bookshelf.

Mr. MATT FALKENSTEIN (Baggage Handler): I'd say a tall metal storage locker that has a bracket, concealing whatever is inside, with a lock on the end.

WELCH: This is where any rifles, shotguns, handguns and starter pistols will ride. Passengers will have to lock their guns in a hard case and hand them over to Amtrak, who will store the guns in these lockers.

But passengers must first call Amtrak 24 hours in advance and be sure that the train they're taking and the two stations they'll be traveling to and from offer checked baggage.

Chief JOHN O'CONNOR (Amtrak Police Department): It's only a portion of the trains that Amtrak operates.

WELCH: That's Amtrak Police Chief John O'Connor.

Chief O'CONNOR: Amtrak operates some 300 long-distance trains. This is less than one-third of the trains have checked baggage.

WELCH: At New York's Penn Station, Karen Dyer waits for a train to Boston to go see her new granddaughter. She wasn't aware of the new policy.

Ms. KAREN DYER: If they are secured, I really don't have a problem with it. But my concern would be to ensure that they are secured, so that they can't fall into the wrong hands.

WELCH: Passenger Susan Scherr didn't know about the new gun policy either. Amtrak conducts occasional random screenings on bags. But because there's no regular screening, she says the new policy offers a false sense of security.

Ms. SUSAN SCHERR: There's no check anyway, so who's to say someone couldn't come on with a gun in their luggage too, right?

WELCH: Police Chief O'Connor says Amtrak has beefed up security over the years, installing more security cameras, expanding its canine units and pairing up with local police and the National Guard to patrol train stations.

He points to the fact that Amtrak's unloaded gun policy is similar to the one for air travel. While the airlines have a system to screen every passenger, it's something O'Connor says no train system on this scale has figured out how to replicate.

Chief O'CONNOR: Certainly, trains are not as secure as planes, but we believe we have layers of security that allow for a free and open system to operate, which we think is important in this country.

WELCH: Gun safety groups say they will be keeping an eye on Amtrak as it rolls unloaded guns down its tracks.

For NPR New, I'm Catherine Welch.

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