Editor’s Note: Don Phillips is a career journalist and a former transportation reporter for The Washington Post and the International Herald Tribune. Specializing in reporting on the railroad industry, Phillips is a frequent contributor to Trains Magazine.

Story highlights

The Transportation Security Administration has special teams to protect trains

VIPR teams, which started in 2005, have made mistakes, Don Phillips says

Phillips: Amtrak should train and closely monitor VIPR railroad teams

CNN  — 

The Transportation Security Administration is not just angering travelers at airports. The TSA also does buses, trucks, subways and trains.

Guess what? The none-too-popular agency appears to have had the same kind of unimpressive performance issues on the rails as it has in the aviation industry.

Since 2005, the TSA’s Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams have been spot-checking for terrorism threats in the nation’s massive network of highways and rail systems – a seemingly overwhelming task.

Trains Magazine reporter Don Phillips says TSA VIPR teams have made blunders.

By many reliable accounts, VIPR began life as a modern version of the Keystone Kops. Now, more than six years later, there’s still a lot of room for improvement.

Considering the blunders at the beginning, VIPR teams are greatly improved today, and probably already are better than their airport counterparts. But considering the TSA’s record of passenger treatment – and its level of popularity – among air travelers, of course, that is not high praise.

The possibility that the TSA would disband VIPR is remote. Perhaps the best solution is to have Amtrak and the railroads continue what they’ve been doing: training VIPR teams, keeping them under control and letting them know there will be trouble if they do anything dumb.

A great deal of credit for VIPR improvement should go to Amtrak’s police chief, John O’Connor, who was so outraged about an incident in Savannah, Georgia, in February 2011 that he angrily threw VIPR teams off Amtrak property until they learned how not to make fools of themselves.

“When I saw it, I didn’t believe it was real,” O’Connor said of a posting on an anti-TSA blog site. When he learned it was not a joke, “I hit the ceiling,” he said.

TSA rail, subway spot-checks raise privacy issues

What happened in Savannah? A Visible Intermodal Protection and Response team became far too visible.

For reasons that have never been publicly explained, a squad of VIPR agents showed up at a Savannah Amtrak station one day and literally took over without the knowledge or approval of the Amtrak Police Department.

Everyone who entered the station was thoroughly searched. It didn’t seem to matter whether people were getting on trains or getting off trains, or just looking for a place to go to the bathroom.

The “rules,” if there were any, seemed to be that if you entered the station, you went through a full search. If you walked around the station to get to a train or to get off a train – quite an easy thing to do at the Savannah station – no one bothered you. Clearly, no security issue was involved.

The TSA apologized repeatedly to the chief and promised never to do it again, but the version of the incident on its website was more arrogant than apologetic. O’Connor said apologies were irrelevant and the TSA website version was filled with inaccuracies.

The TSA must promise to never go beyond the policies of the Amtrak Police Department, he said, and to be certain that Amtrak police are present whenever VIPR teams take any action on Amtrak property or trains. The embarrassed TSA readily agreed to every requirement. Amtrak’s policies are quite specific: Amtrak police (and therefore VIPR) do most of their security behind the scenes.

They do a lot, which I have agreed to keep off the record. That’s too bad, because some of their methods are fascinating.

Occasionally, however, Amtrak will go public and set up a table at a boarding gate for one train. Perhaps one in nine passengers will be quickly pulled aside. Their luggage will be swabbed for explosives. They are never personally searched or put through any other kind of screening. And O’Connor’s rules say passengers are always to be treated with courtesy. If passengers refuse the search, an Amtrak police officer is to courteously take them to the ticket counter and be certain they get a full refund.

Meanwhile, over at the yards, freight railroads were having their own problems with the VIPR teams. The TSA demanded that VIPR agents be allowed to enter yards at any hour of the day or night without notice and to watch employees from hidden positions. The railroads told the TSA to go to hell. Yards are dangerous places for amateurs, they said. It is easy to lose a leg or be crushed between couplers, not to mention that many yard employees unofficially carry guns to kill rats, and they could kill a rat in the weeds that turned out to be a human being.

Again, the TSA had no choice. It is not well known, but the TSA must have permission to go onto private property. That makes no difference at airports because the TSA must approve any new airport security arrangements if the agency is ordered to leave. The TSA has made it known that it will immediately move its equipment out of any airport that tells it to leave, and it will take weeks or months to approve any new security arrangements and equipment. At railroads, however, all the security equipment is owned by the railroads.

Why did the railroads even put up with the TSA? As one top railroad official put it, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

As for the TSA’s side of the story, it usually doesn’t comment publicly on general criticism of VIPR. But TSA officials often do react to with specific incidents. For instance, when there were widespread reports that VIPR agents were pulling over trucks and searching trucks in Tennessee, a TSA spokesman said VIPR was only passing out informational brochures at truck stops for one day. Reporters confirmed that was correct.

But the funniest thing happened to VIPR teams, according to railroad officials. They became fascinated with railroads even though most of them had come out of aviation security, and they follow the rules. O’Connor says he is pleased with their progress. Freight railroad officials also were surprised and pleased. One top freight rail security official, who did not want to be named, said many of the VIPR members have become rail fans and show a growing fascination with railroads.

A major question remains: Are such searches constitutional under the Fourth Amendment? The courts have allowed the TSA to operate in airports because the threat has been judged to be sufficiently serious. But is the threat sufficient on railroads to allow warrantless searches of people who have stirred no obvious suspicions? That case has yet to be heard.

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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Don Phillips.