Friday, November 12, 2004

Train Terror - An NBC4 Special Report

LOS ANGELES -- It could be as bad as Madrid. That's what experts fear might happen in our own back yard unless the Southland train system improves security right away, especially as experts say targets may be shifting to softer targets like trains. NBC4's investigation looked at one passenger train route and showed what insiders call dangerous gaps.

NBC4's Paul Moyer examined the second-busiest Amtrak route in this country, Los Angeles to San Diego. More than 2 million passengers each and every year travel the route. But Moyer wondered, how safe is it?

Experts are concerned about security issues on Southland trains. Do you think riding the rails is safe? (See graph below for survey.)

Moyer asked Amtrak's top official here in Los Angeles, Richard Phelps, "On a scale of one to 10, one being not safe at all... How safe are they?"

Phelps replied, "I'd say a seven."

Moyer asked, "Do you honestly think that if there is terrorist, or a group of terrorists, a week from now who want to get a bag with a bomb on one of these trains that you would stop them?"

Phelps replied, "There's a possibility we could stop them. There's a possibility we might not."

Bags are everywhere at Union Station, so are tunnels, trains, platforms and people. But to the experts, it's what's missing that means so much more.

Moyer: "You don't have metal detectors?"

Phelps: "No, we don't."

Moyer: "You don't have full bag searches of every bag that goes on the train, correct?"

Phelps: "That is correct."

There are no X-ray machines, but there is open access to platforms and tracks at stations like the one Moyer visited in Fullerton, Calif. Moyer said it all means one thing -- a soft target.

Phelps: "I will not disagree."

Moyer: "Soft targets?"

Phelps: "Yes."

A soft target -- like the busy train station in Madrid that was attacked on March 11. Surveillance video cameras were rolling when 10 bombs detonated, murdering more than 190 people and injuring at least 1,800.

At a local train station a voice announces over a loudspeaker, "Welcome aboard Amtrak... At this time we request there be no visitors." U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer commented, "You hear them? That's their attempted security."

Boxer said so far, only the Senate has acted on rail security. The holdup, she said, is still getting two bills past the House and on to the president's desk to sign.

Boxer said, "If you read any of the al-Queda materials, and they've been declassified... we've been warned and we have to act."

Phelps told NBC4, "Ideally, yes, we'd like to do more, but we're constrained by our resources."

In fact, as far back as October 2002, the FBI issued a nationwide bulletin that al-Qaida might be planning a terror attack on passenger trains, bridges, or tracks to cause derailments, all using operatives that were Western in appearance.

Phelps said, "Well, that was true back in 2002. But, we haven't received any credible threats from the Department of Homeland Security, (or) the FBI, you know, in 2003 and 2004."

Forty percent of the goods in this country come out of the Long Beach Port. And a lot of it is hazmat materials.

Boxer said, "If something happens to our rail systems, we're not only talking about personal tragedy, we're talking about economic crisis."

Moyer asked, "Was any action taken at all after that 2002 warning?"

Phelps replied, "Yes. We beefed up our Amtrak police presence in stations. We added canine patrols. We added much more security training."

Amtrak says all checked bags are now subject to random searches by bomb-sniffing dogs. And what about those carry-on bags?

Phelps said, "We do do random bag searches -- not on the Surf Liner, but on the long-distance trains."

Moyer talked with some individuals who had taken long-distance train rides and asked them if their bags had been checked. The answer was no.

Moyer: "Was your bag ever checked?"

Walker Lukens, a passenger: "Nope."

Moyer: "Nobody ever looked in your bags?"

Connie Roth, a passenger: "No."

Lukens added, "There is no security on the trains at all."

None of the passengers who stopped to talk to Moyer said they were searched.

Phelps said, "We pay a lot of attention to backpacks and who's wearing them."

Moyer: "Anybody check these bags at all?"

Paul White, Nick Harne: "Nope."

Moyer: "Anybody ever search that bag?"

Charles Marrero: "Nope."

Phelps: "There are plain-clothed security people who ride the trains."

Lukens: "I definitely thought it was very unsafe."

Phelps: "Our employees are trained to look for suspicious activity and unattended packages."

NBC4 sent our undercover cameras on two separate trips from LA to San Diego. They found other unattended backage and put their bag down next to it. Nothing happened. No visible security guards. No dogs. No questions asked.

Boxer said, "What you're finding is that there's really no system in place."

NBC4 also showed their undercover video to an Amtrak official. Even though Amtrak says to buy a fare you must produce identification, we told him that we were even allowed to ride home for free.

Moyer: "They came from San Diego to here for free."

Phelps: "Well, there's no excuse for that. That's a failure on our part if that happened."

Boxer: "We saw what happened in Madrid. If that happens here, I will tell you, I don't know how people will sleep at night."

Experts tell us that security at train stations will probably never match the airports. These are two different animals. Trains have open access to tracks and platforms, passengers pour through gates, and expect fast, cheaper travel. Any changes like using new technology boils down to funding. Some Amtrak officials claim that it will take years and billions of dollars before things gets safer. As of Nov. 1, Amtrak now says it strictly enforces the two-bag carry-on, three-bag checked baggage limit.

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