Tuesday, January 23, 2007

N.J. seeks help from Congress on rail security

New Jersey's rail systems do not have the resources they need to keep passengers safe from terrorist attacks or accidents, the state's homeland security director told a U.S. Senate committee Thursday.
From low-tech fences and trained dogs to "smart" video cameras that can spot unattended bags and experimental high-tech sensors that "sniff" passengers for explosives, Richard L. Canas said there's much that needs to be done to protect the "soft target" of passenger rail.

"There is a vast gap between what we need to do and what funds we have," Canas told the Senate's transportation committee, which later this year will consider a $1.2 billion truck, bus and rail security bill.
Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., a high-ranking committee member and advocate for the security bill who invited Canas to testify, said the government spends billions of dollars a year on airline security but "we are simply neglecting the security of our surface transportation systems."
"More people travel through Penn Station in New York City in a day than use all three of the major New York-New Jersey airports combined," Lautenberg said.
"And, every day, 11.3 million people ride rail in this country."
The hearing came the week of a newspaper expose that also found lax freight rail security around the nation, including at several northern New Jersey sites.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review said one of its reporters was able to walk into manufacturers storing hazardous chemicals and the rail lines that transport the materials at 12 New Jersey sites. Its report said chemical plant security was generally better in New Jersey than the rest of the country but that rail lines seemed no safer.
On Thursday, Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said the nation's security policy is "reactive" and it seems as though the Department of Homeland Security is waiting for something to happen on a train or bus before getting serious about transit security.
But safer trains and buses could come at a price to passengers.
Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, noted that airline passengers pay a $10 round-trip security fee, and he pointed to Canas as he said there should not be more money for rail security unless passengers pay something toward it.
Canas also questioned how much of a delay passengers would be willing to endure for more safety. He noted that a test by the Transportation Security Administration at the Exchange Place PATH station of an explosive detection device held up each passenger for three to five seconds.
"That was enough to cause a bottleneck," he said.
Cost and delays were also the concerns raised as the committee discussed how to make freight trains that carry hazardous chemicals more secure.
Kip Hawley, assistant secretary of TSA, said the government has tried to avoid the expense of building fences along rail lines by working with rail carriers to minimize the time trains spend idling unattended in unsecured areas.
Canas said his office was working with the CSX Railroad to get better tracking information on its containers before the New Jersey Turnpike goes ahead with building a fence near rail tracks across from Newark Liberty International Airport.
Executives of agencies that regulate railroads and the trucking industry said they were supportive of governmental security programs as long as they did not duplicate what was already being done by the private sector and did not delay the flow of commerce.
E-mail: jackson@northjersey.com