Rough Ride on the Rails

On March 11, 2004, it took just 10 relatively small explosives on Madrid’s commuter rail train to kill 200 people. In January 2005, nearly a dozen people were killed and more than 100 injured when a commuter train crashed into a vehicle left on the tracks by a suicidal man near Los Angeles. Also in January, a train carrying chlorine derailed in Graniteville, SC. Ruptured tanker cars allowed a poisonous gas cloud to escape killing nine people and sickening more than 200. Six months earlier, two trains collided in a rural area outside San Antonio, Texas, 40 cars derailed and the ensuing chlorine gas cloud killed three. In July 2001, a train derailment in the Howard Street tunnel in Baltimore resulted in the spilling of tripropylene, a hazardous chemical that fueled an intense chemical fire that forced the evacuation of the nearby Baltimore Orioles’ Camden Yards baseball park and cost $12 million to clean up.
It’s no secret to American authorities—or to terrorists—that America’s surface transportation is vulnerable and its rail system, in particular, represents an Achilles’ heel.
The importance of rail transportation security can’t be understated, considering the United States has more than 140,000 miles of train routes, 500 Amtrak stations and 500 major urban transit operators. Nearly 9 billion passenger trips are taken on US mass transit systems every year.
More than 40 percent of all intercity freight is delivered by rail. Railroads carry approximately 20 percent of all chemical tonnage shipped in the US, and essentially all of the nation’s chlorine stocks.
Each year, there are about 2 million hazardous material rail shipments. More than 5 million tons of hazardous materials and chemicals were shipped through Virginia alone in 2001, the most recent year for which information is available. The bombing of just one chlorine tanker in a highly populated area would produce a chlorine cloud that could potentially kill 100,000.
Beyond the critical delivery of everyday goods, railroads provide crucial support to the Department of Defense’s Strategic Rail Corridor Network (STRACNET). This 38,800-mile rail line provides the backbone for the movement of Defense Department (DoD) shipments. There are 193 defense installations whose missions require rail service. The military places heavy and direct reliance on railroads to integrate bases and connect installations to predominantly maritime ports of embarkation.
Pentagon officials have acknowledged that rail transportation is extremely important to DoD since heavy and tracked vehicles deploy by rail to seaports of embarkation. The war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere could not be accomplished without the nation’s railways.
Yet rail security remains stubbornly stuck in low gear. Even Richard Skinner, the acting inspector general of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in testimony on Jan. 26 told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee: “While TSA [the Transportation Security Administration] continues to address critical aviation security needs, it is moving slowly to improve security across the other modes of transportation.”
Skinner pointed out that “over 90 percent of the nation’s $5.3 billion annual investment in TSA goes to aviation,” and that “current efforts do not yet reflect a forward-looking strategic plan systematically analyzing assets, risks, costs and benefits so that transportation security resources can be allocated to the greatest risks in a cost-effective way. TSA’s FY 2005 budget still focuses its resources on aviation.”
Indeed, the 2005 Homeland Security budget added an additional $5 billion for aviation security, but spent only $150 million for rail.
The new budget
Rather than improving the situation, President George Bush’s proposed FY 2006 budget remains at $150 million “for intercity passenger rail transportation, freight rail, and transit security grants.” Similarly, the new homeland security budget asks for a paltry $5 million for trucking industry security grants and $10 million for intercity bus security grants.
A proposed initiative called Targeted Infrastructure Protection would provide $600 million for all forms of grants to supplement money spent by state, local and regional governments to enhance security at port, railway, mass transit and other critical infrastructure facilities.
Lawmakers concerned about rail and transit security have vowed to tangle with the White House this year over adequate funding for security and attack response preparation. To that end, in February, Sens. Charles E. Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC) introduced a bill, the Railroad Crossing and Hazardous Materials Transport Safety Act of 2005 (S 230), that would substantially strengthen the security and safety of the nation’s rail and public transit lines.
Less than two weeks earlier, on Jan. 26, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) introduced legislation that calls for federal grants to build more bridges and tunnels so motorists do not have to cross railroad tracks. And earlier that month, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) introduced the Railroad Carriers and Mass Transportation Protection Act of 2005 (HR 52), which would increase penalties for attacks against rail carriers.
The prospects for rail security legislation, however, are not encouraging.
On March 31, 2004, 15 members of the House Homeland Security Committee sent a letter to then-Secretary Tom Ridge declaring that the initiatives he outlined “do not come close to addressing the potential threats to our critical passenger rail and public transit systems.”
The representatives accused DHS of “timid efforts to increase the security of our passenger rail and public transit systems” that “are unacceptable.”
To solve that problem, the members introduced the Safe Transit and Rail Awareness and Investments for National Security Act (HR 4361), which would have committed $2.8 billion over three years to support vital security improvements in the nation’s public transportation systems. However, it never made it out of the Subcommittee on Highways, Transit and Pipelines.
Also, a less comprehensive railway safety bill that passed the Senate last year never came up before the House.
There’s little indication from the executive branch or the private sector that the situation will change. Deputy DHS Secretary James Loy only mentioned rail and transit security in passing during his Feb. 7 press conference introducing the DHS budget.
DHS officials have generally been tight-lipped about discussing security measures the department has imposed on, or requested of, rail and transit companies because of the inherent extra-vulnerability of these modes of freight and passenger transportation.
Jonathan Fleming, TSA’s chief operating officer, told The Washington Post in late January, “We didn’t take over security operations in rail the same way we did in aviation, so it may look different. It might not be as visible or as sexy, but we’ve certainly been working on it since the early days.”
Tom White, director ofeditorial services for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), told HSToday at press time that the organization had not yet “looked at the [proposed 2006] budget” with regard to its impact on rail security. “We’re still looking at other issues in the budget that affect us,” he explained. As for rail security issues in general, he referred to AAR position statements and congressional testimony by association executives.
In March 2004, Ridge outlined a series of highly touted security initiatives for rail and mass-transit systems that included training bomb-detecting canine teams, developing biological, chemical and explosives detection countermeasures, and screening baggage. But critics argued that these initiatives do nothing to address immediate security vulnerabilities, the need for increased funding or the lack of coordination between DHS and the Department of Transportation (DoT).
According to Congress’ General Accountability Office (GAO) in its report, Rail Security: Some Actions Taken to Enhance Passenger and Freight Rail Security, but Significant Challenges Remain ( d04598t.pdf), “Two recurring themes cut across our … work in transportation security—the need for the federal government to utilize a risk management approach and improve coordination of security efforts,” and improved coordination among rail stakeholders, which could help enhance security efforts across all modes, including passenger and freight rail systems.
But the roles and responsibilities of TSA and DoT in transportation security, including rail security, have yet to be clearly delineated, creating the potential for duplicating or conflicting efforts as both entities work to enhance security, GAO concluded.
Meanwhile, existing federal, state and local budget shortfalls, not to mention the looming deep gouges in these already strained resources, are negatively impacting the ability to secure the many miles of America’s train and transit lines. One transit agency told GAO that an intrusion alarm and closed-circuit television system for only one of its portals would cost approximately $250,000 an amount equal to at least a quarter of the capital budgets of a majority of the transit agencies surveyed by GAO.
“The current economic environment makes this a difficult time for private industry or state and local governments to make additional security investments,” GAO reported. “The sluggish economy has further weakened the transportation industry’s financial condition by decreasing ridership and revenues. Given the tight budget environment, state and local governments and transportation operators, such as transit agencies, must make difficult trade-offs between security investments and other needs, such as service expansion and equipment upgrades.”
Further exacerbating the problem of funding security improvements, GAO stated, “are the additional costs the passenger and freight rail providers incur when the federal government elevates the national threat condition. For example, Amtrak estimates that it spends an additional $500,000 per month for police overtime when the national threat condition is increased.”
“And that can be kissed goodbye under the [president’s] new budget,” said a DHS official involved with security assessments. “The problem is,” the official candidly told HSToday, “rail security—the mentality—is where aviation security was prior to 9/11.
“Are we going to have to have a 9/11-equivalent attack on our trains or subways before we take their security seriously?” he asked. HST
The impact on Amtrak
The proposed FY 2006 budget would bankrupt Amtrak and end federal subsidies for intercity rail. The budget includes $360 million for Amtrak, compared to Amtrak’s actual FY 2005 budget of about $1.2 billion. Since the White House has conceded that the $360 million is intended only to maintain commuter operations that Amtrak operates under contract for local governments, the administration is, in effect, proposing the termination of all intercity passenger rail service. The entity that survived this scenario certainly would not have much, if any, money left over for security.
The proposed gutting of Amtrak’s budget undoubtedly would impair the ailing train service’s joint venture with DHS to enhance Amtrak’s security plan and improve its strategic security planning capacity. Also, a RAND assessment of Amtrak’s security and terror preparedness, intended to help Amtrak implement a nationwide, comprehensive, integrated system security plan and program, likely won’t see the light of day if the budget passes in its current form.
Washington, DC
Both the Federal Bureau of Investigation and DoT have warned transit and railroad systems of possible terror attacks by Al Qaeda. In April 2003, such warnings were validated when it was revealed that Khalid Sheik Muhammed, one of Osama bin Laden’s chief lieutenants, told interrogators about the terror group’s plans to attack the popularly traveled Metro system of Washington, DC.
Operated by the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, the District of Columbia Metro system (which also operates in northern Virginia and southern Maryland) is the second-largest rail transit system in the United States. It transports more than a third of the federal government to and from work and millions of tourists to the landmarks in the nation’s capital. Last year, it hosted 190 million riders.
Beyond Metro, on the more than 40 miles of rail lines that traverse the inside of the Capital Beltway, “freight trains carrying dangerous cargo, including toxic chemicals, ammunition, explosives, nuclear material and corrosive acid, routinely travels through densely populated areas of Fairfax County, Arlington and Alexandria [Virginia], according to public documents and interviews with dozens of local, state and federal officials,” reported the northern Virginia newspaper, The Connection. The paper added that this “steady stream of hazardous materials passing through the region via rail has leftthousands of northern Virginia residents exposed to a possible mass-casualty terrorist attack or a potentially deadly accident.”
Because the capital-area freight rail lines are such attractive terror targets, and because DHS had not yet set forth a plan for dealing with their security, the Council of the District of Columbia in February approved emergency legislation restricting the shipment of hazardous materials within 2 miles of the US Capitol and federal buildings. The legislation requires rail and trucking companies to get a special permit before they can transport large quantities of extremely hazardous chemicals, such as chlorine or propane, through the nation’s capital.
CSX Corp., which owns the rail line running through Washington, sharply criticized the DC council’s action. “The unfortunate end result of the action by the District of Columbia council would be to drive more of these materials to freewheeling trucks by frustrating the efforts of railroad to move materials in ways that are safe, secure and efficient,” said CSX spokesman Bob Sullivan, adding that the new law “does not increase safety or security at all. In fact, it compromises it.”
Last November, Democrats on the House Homeland Security Committee, including ranking minority member Jim Turner (D-Texas), sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge questioning whether DHS was doing everything possible to keep the Washington area safe, and asking for details about the department’s plan for regional rail security.
The lawmakers said they were concerned, specifically, that DHS had not required CSX to reroute hazardous shipments around Washington.
According to Sullivan, CSX has a security program for the District in partnership with the federal government, but he declined to discuss specifics of the plan. Trains have been rerouted around Washington by CSX, but only on a temporary basis at the request of DHS during a designated national security event, such as the inauguration.
DHS spokeswoman Michelle Petrovich said the department is “working collaboratively” with CSX to review rail security options for the Washington area, and acknowledged DHS has not required the rail company to reroute shipments. DHS said in response to the lawmakers’ letter that it was continuing to review a Washington-area rail security plan, and that requiring the rerouting of trains hauling hazardous materials was an option being considered. The DC council, however, said it couldn’t wait for DHS to make up its mind.
Disputing CSX’s position, counterterror authorities say the DC council’s action is something the federal government should have done years ago. “I don’t care what claims security rail companies have made. The fact is, trains make good targets, and well-motivated terrorists with resources could pull off a catastrophic attack,” one authority stated. “We’re talking hundreds of thousands dead and injured.”
DC council members said their action was based on testimony and evidence showing that a terrorist attack on a large hazardous material shipment near Washington could create a toxic cloud extending 14 miles that could kill or injure as many as 100,000 people and cause billions of dollars in damages.
“More than three years after the most devastating attack on this nation since Pearl Harbor, President Bush and the US Congress have yet to focus sufficient attention on the critically urgent need to safeguard US railways and train stations,” complained Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), who commutes daily on Amtrak to Capitol Hill. “We know passenger rail is a potential target of terrorists. … But, despite … clear warnings, the Bush administration has not responded with any concrete steps to improve the safety of millions of people who ride trains.”
Biden continued: “Imagine the scene if an attack occurred in the train tunnel under Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court Building. It was built at the beginning of the last century and is still in use, with thousands of passengerstraveling through it every day. It desperately needs security upgrades—simple yet vital improvements to add more fencing and barriers, better lighting, emergency access and exits, water sprinklers and electronic surveillance that could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of people.”

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The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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