Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Federally funded security system keeps eye on Tri-Rail passengers

New federally funded $1.1 million security system takes a test train rideBy Michael Turnbell Transportation Writer Posted July 23 2006

Tri-Rail conductor Tom Euell watches commuters on a flat video screen at the head of the train, looking for any suspicious images beamed from cameras mounted in every car."Sometimes you can't walk through every car and back by the time you get to the next stop," said Euell, a Wellington resident who has spent 11 years running the commuter trains.

The closed-circuit cameras are the centerpiece of a new $1.1 million security system now being tested and slated to be activated next month, paid for by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.With chances of a terrorist attack slim, officials say the cameras will have a bigger role in helping law enforcement officers deter crime aboard the commuter rail line."I ride the train sometimes at night when there are less people and sometimes I'm sitting all by myself. You don't know who's going to pass through those doors," said Ann Edwards, of Miami."It makes me feel safer knowing that someone is keeping an eye on things."Edwards, like most passengers, was unaware of Tri-Rail's surveillance plans. The globe-like cameras are about the size of a softball and barely noticeable on the ceilings inside the cars' entrance.In the next few weeks, posters and fliers will be placed inside the trains to tell riders why they're being videotaped.Tri-Rail is also participating in a national campaign by the Federal Transit Administration called Transit Watch, aimed at educating riders on what kind of suspicious activity to look for and how to report it.Abandoned packages would be an example.While Tri-Rail has never faced any specific terrorism threat, officials say they can't afford security lapses in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, as well as recent rail bombings overseas.The commuter line carries about 10,000 to 12,000 passengers daily, including 1,400 Palm Beach County school students during the school year.According to statistics compiled by Tri-Rail, disorderly conduct and criminal mischief such as vandalism are the most common crimes reported by passengers, with 151 incidents from July 2005 to June 2006.Wackenhut security guards patrol the stations and ride the trains between Miami and Mangonia Park, the last stop on the line north of West Palm Beach. Sheriff's deputies from Broward and Palm Beach counties also patrol the trains."The cameras are just another layer of security we're providing for our passengers," said Brad Barkman, Tri-Rail's operations director. "It's better to be prepared than be sorry."Since 2001, the aviation industry has received $20 billion from the federal government for security measures while the transit industry has only got $386 million. Mass transit systems in the United States, meanwhile, carry 32 million passengers a day -- 16 times the number of air travelers.The American Public Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based trade association, has identified more than $6 billion in unmet security needs for transit systems in the country.