Saturday, August 12, 2006

Good News for Amtrak? Bad News for Safety?

In the days following 911, Amtrak witnessed a surge in ridership. Even after planes returned to the skies, Amtrak's passenger loads remained high--although they eventually leveled off. One wonders if this week's news about terrorist plots to explode airplanes using liquids carried on-board might drive passengers back to Amtrak. A commenter to my previous post pointed out that people might now be more likely to drive than fly on trips of short distances--e.g. Boston to New York or perhaps even San Francisco to Los Angeles. I think she's right, but they may also decide to give the train a try. Amtrak's Northeast Corridor Acela Service, which can transport a passenger from Boston to Washington DC in approximately 6.5 hours, offers a tempting alternative to long security lines.

That said, however, I wonder when antiterrorism attention will turn to the country's passenger trains (we'll leave the freight trains alone for now, though they too pose major security risks). Unless things have changed since I last rode Amtrak in May, and I don't think they have, not a single piece of carry-on luggage is inspected before it boards the train. The checked luggage probably isn't either. Nor do passengers pass through security checkpoints before reaching their terminals. It's crazy! I realize that it's probably more difficult to destroy and ensure the extirpation of all passengers aboard a train composed of a dozen, solidly built cars than it is upon a compact aircraft, but surely terrorists could find ways to maximize death and destruction. For example, they might explode a series of bombs at the very minute a train passes over a high bridge. That way, even if the explosion doesn't kill all passengers, the plummet into icy cold water will.

One finds no comfort by checking Amtrak's website. Like the airlines, the company has posted a travel security statement. Unfortunately, it qualifies as empty speech. It says the company has deployed more K-9 units (to sniff out liquids--or guns?) and will continue to require that each passenger put a name tag on his bag. A name tag? Has Amtrak heard of suicide bombers? They don't need proxies to do their dirty work. Worst of all, the announcement reassures that no specific threats have been made to trains. Well, okay, but United and American Airlines no doubt thought the same thing prior to 911.

It seems to me that the country is in denial about the vulnerability of its passengers and freight trains. I shudder to think what will have to happen to get our attention. That long drive is sounding more tempting--well, except for the gasoline bill!


Blogger Phlip said...

Yeah, some guy wrote in to CNN today about this very issue. According to him no baggage is being screened for anything and even non-ticketed passengers can get on and off trains during the boarding period. And there's been plenty of train bombings in the last few years - just not in North America. Do you think Amtrak is so scared to lose passangers that they are ignoring these concerns?

5:00 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Possibly. But the bigger issue is that there's no TSA presence at train stations, and Amtrak can't afford to beef up security itself. So unless the government steps in, the status quo won't change.

7:47 AM  

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