U.S. Transit Authorities Work on Security
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
Since the London bombings, transit authorities here in the U.S. have been under pressure to prevent similar attacks. Just today the FBI announced that it had thwarted terrorists who wanted to attack train tunnels between New York City and New Jersey. We'll have more on that later in the program. NPR's Pam Fessler prepared this report on the difficulties the government faces trying to secure the country's transit systems.
PAM FESSLER reporting:
Here's the quandary: Americans use mass transit 32 million times each weekday, and they want to get where they're going fast.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER KOZUB (Assistant Director, National Transit Institute): We could implement security measures that would truly make a system very safe.
FESSLER: But not very usable. Christopher Kozub is with the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University.
Mr. KOZUB: If we were to, you know, do background checks on every person who was getting on board, you'd greatly increase security. But is that something that's even remotely feasible? Absolutely not.
FESSLER: So here's one of many things the government is looking at.
(Soundbite of horn)
FESSLER: At a subway stop in Baltimore, Maryland, the fare card machines look normal, but not all of them are. Mary Ann Mitchell of Sandia National Labs presses a button on one of them.
(Soundbite of subway machines)
Ms. MARY ANN MITCHELL (Sandia National Labs): I'm starting the ticket vending machine. It's going to bring up the screen that tells me what my options are. So I think today I'm going to take a single trip.
(Soundbite of subway machines)
FESSLER: But while she's doing that, the machine is doing something else. It's analyzing the residue from her finger to see if it detects any trace of explosives.
Ms. MITCHELL: So then I go ahead and put in my $1.60.
(Soundbite of change dropping into machine)
FESSLER: If Mitchell tests positive, and in this case she does, a law enforcement officer is alerted. Her ticket is also encoded to prevent her from getting through the turnstile. It all happens in the time it takes her to buy the fare card.
Ms. MITCHELL: Now at this point, I'm going to go ahead and go through the gate here. I approach it like a normal customer.
(Soundbite of beeping)
Ms. MITCHELL: You notice it tells me I have a problem. I need to go see the - oh, and we have an officer of the law behind us.
FESSLER: And, indeed, a transit officer is there with a hand-held device that shows a picture of Mitchell buying her ticket. She now faces questions and more screening. The idea is to stop the bad guys without slowing down traffic. This is one of several government tests. It's also looking at mobile bomb-detection devices.
Mr. ROBERT JAMISON (Deputy Administrator, Federal Transportation Security Administration): I think the visible deterrence factor of the technology is very promising, and it creates another tool in the toolbox.
FESSLER: Robert Jamison is deputy administrator of the Federal Transportation Security Administration. He thinks unpredictability is one of the most effective ways to protect mass transit.
Mr. JAMISON: So that people don't know exactly when there's going to be a presence, and they don't know if they might have a random search. They don't know if there might be explosive detection capability there.
FESSLER: It's all a matter of mixing it up with lots of different security measures. Jamison says over the past year, K-9 units, rail inspectors, and surveillance cameras have been added, and intelligence sharing has improved. The federal government has also provided $400 million since 9/11 to help transit systems tighten security.
But critics say that's hardly anything compared with the need: $6 billion, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi is the ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee.
Representative BENNIE THOMPSON (Democrat, Mississippi): Right now we're spending over $8 per passenger who travel on airlines and about a penny per passenger on transit security on rail.
FESSLER: In a recent report, Committee Democrats complain that a year after the London attacks, there's still no federal plan to secure mass transit. Thompson says the administration talks tough on security...
Rep. THOMPSON: But when it comes time to provide the resources and leadership necessary to accomplish it, it does not happen.
FESSLER: Jamison, of TSA, insists that's not true, that transit riders are safer than they were a year ago, although that's hard to prove. Christopher Kozub of the National Transit Institute says more money would, indeed, help, but he thinks as do most security experts that one of the best ways to protect transit it to encourage vigilance on the front lines.
Mr. CHRISTOPHER KOZUB (National Transit Institute): It's the bus driver, it's the road supervisor, it's your station agents, it's your terminal managers. They know what's suspicious on that bus and what's not suspicious.
FESSLER: Kozub's group, using funds from the Federal Transit Administration, has been training thousands of transit workers on how to stop a potential terrorist attack. He recently told Florida bus officials that it's not all that complicated.
Mr. KOZUB: All we want you to do is be observant and alert, and if you see anything, report it.
FESSLER: And the same goes for passengers. Kozub says the biggest problem now is complacency, that as the memory of the London attack fades, people are becoming less vigilant. Pam Fessler, NPR News.
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