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On alert on the rails

Commuters, lawmakers concerned about railroad security

From Jason Carroll

The bombing of four trains in Madrid, Spain, has drawn fresh attention to protecting railroads from terrorists.
Tune into CNN for in-depth reporting on terror threats and defending America in our series, "Security Watch."
Acts of terror
Department of Homeland Security
Asa Hutchinson
Travel and Commuting

(CNN) -- For Karen Callahan, a day away from her paralegal job means one less occasion to take the 30-minute train ride into Manhattan -- and one less worry about security.

"I feel like a sitting duck, that's what I feel every time I get on the train," she says. "Probably everyday, I get on the train I look around and I just feel there's no security."

Callahan's commute takes her through New York's Grand Central Station, one of the nation's busiest train stations and where she feels most uneasy. Yet the single mother of two says she feels like the train is her only choice, so she tries to minimize the risk.

"I tend to go into the very first car for a few reasons -- one of them being it seems it would be easier to get out if anything happened," she explains.

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware says Callahan's security concerns are not unfounded. "There is no basic security ... It is bizarre! Absolutely bizarre!" he contends.

The senator commutes daily from Delaware to Washington, D.C., and is so angered by security lapses he sees that he introduced legislation to change it.

"I mean it's basic block and tackle stuff," Biden said while touring one Washington train station with CNN. "There's not sufficient cops, sufficient fencing, sufficient cameras. It is just criminal."

Last year's terrorist bombings of four passenger trains in Madrid, Spain, have drawn fresh attention to possible railroad emergencies.

This year, 70 new U.S. railroad security inspectors joined the 400 already in place, and $150 million was allocated to rail security, according to Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary of the Department of Homeland Security.

Even with the extra provisions, Hutchinson says he understands the concern.

"You certainly have to worry that we're doing all that we can to protect those rails and also the whole system," he says. "But you take steps every day to build upon that. ... Much has been done."

Critics insist much more is needed. New York lawmakers, for example, gave train and subway security a "D" grade, citing unprotected tunnels and rail yards and a lack of surveillance.

Those who track terror tactics say the United States could learn from Great Britain's experience with its train system and threats by the Irish Republican Army.

"What we've learned from the British experience is that if people are admonished to notify authorities of suspicious activity or abandoned parcels, if you then readily have communications systems for them to do that -- telephones that are marked -- and you provide rapid response when reports are made, then in effect you have closed the loop," explained Brian Jenkins of the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit research organization.

Hutchinson says he realizes vulnerability in the system needs to be addressed, insisting that the government is aggressively pursuing solutions. The department recently launched a pilot program, for example, to use X-ray machines to test passengers and their luggage for explosives.

And since the September 11, 2001, terror attacks, Amtrak reports it has added police personnel, increased use of bomb sniffing dogs and now requires passengers to show identification before boarding its trains.

Callahan says even more should be done, but she's not holding her breath.

"I think it all comes down to money," Callahan says. "I think it's probably too expensive to have security on all the trains all the time ... it's money."

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