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US Tests New Security Screening Program for Commuter Trains
Marissa Melton
VOA, Washington
04 May 2004, 23:21 UTC

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security is experimenting new security system to screen rail passengers in the wake of the Madrid train bombings on March 11th that killed nearly two hundred people. Undersecretary for Border and Transportation Security Asa Hutchinson explained the measures at the launch of a 30-day pilot screening program at a suburban commuter train station outside Washington, D.C. Tuesday.

For the next 30 days, commuters traveling at rush hour through a train station in New Carrollton, Maryland, will be screened, along with their baggage, by machines that detect explosive materials.

Mr. Hutchinson told journalists the government's focus on rail security started long before the attacks in Spain. Moreover, he said, the screenings are just the first of a series of experiments in ways to tighten security. He said the next test is scheduled for a busy station in the heart of the nation's Capital.

"Phase two of this pilot program will be at Union Station," he said. "Checking passengers as they put their bags in a storage area. Phase three will be in July and that is an on-the-train screening test for all of the passengers." He also noted the programs are meant to test proposed emergency measures in response to a specific threat, rather than be the forerunner to everyday screenings. Experts fear terror attacks on the United States particularly in the run-up to the November presidential elections when both the Republican and Democratic parties' national conventions are scheduled to be held in the rail-heavy travel cities of Boston and New York.

Mr. Hutchinson said while the first 30-day experiment may be useful for ironing out kinks in the system, an actual measure of success may be harder to pin down. "How we measure this will be first of all whether we prevent explosives from getting onto the train systems. Obviously, we will test that, both from the standpoint of convenience and from the standpoint of security," he said.

Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced in March that an initiative on rail security would include measures to fight biological and chemical attacks, as well as a public awareness campaign.