updated 7/28/2005 5:28:48 AM ET 2005-07-28T09:28:48

The London bombings have focused attention on train security, but largely lost in the discussion of how to keep bombs off Americans rails is the potential danger from the nation’s antiquated network of tunnels.

Many tunnels, some of which are at least a century old, are basically unchanged from the time they were dug. They are poorly ventilated and escape routes tend to be narrow and difficult.

“We’re faced with how to best prevent a nefarious incident from happening, but what if one does happen?” said John Tolman, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. “What’s the best escape route? God forbid there was a fire underneath, what do you do?”

'The blast has nowhere to go'
Older tunnels tend to be deep and snug. Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert with the think tank Rand Corp. said that makes an explosion even deadlier.

“The blast has nowhere to go. It’ll run back and forth through the carriages and cause the greatest number of casualties,” Jenkins said.

It also makes it harder for emergency workers to get through wreckage to put out the flames and help victims.

In London on July 7, two bombs exploded in shallow tunnels. One blew up in a deep tunnel 70 feet below the street on the King’s Cross Line. Twenty-one people died in the King’s Cross tunnel, three times more than in each of the others.

Rail tunnels also are important conduits of commerce and for telecommunications cables. The Stevens Pass tunnel in the Cascade Mountains is the gateway for virtually all rail freight from the Port of Seattle to Chicago.

Baltimore has firsthand experience with a train tunnel fire.

In 2001, a freight train accident inside a 130-year-old tunnel caused a fire and flood that largely shut down the city and disrupted rail service for days from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Telecommunication systems along the East Coast were interrupted for weeks.

There are nearly 900 miles of transit tunnels, according to the American Public Transit Association.

Costs impossible to determine
The government does not have an inventory of rail tunnels that freight and passenger trains share. That makes it impossible to calculate the costs involved in upgrading them all to ensure speedier evacuations and better access for emergency crews.

Amtrak is spending $480 million on safety improvements for tunnels linking Manhattan with New Jersey and Long Island.

Steven Alleman, Amtrak’s program director for fire and life safety in New York, said the work includes new ventilation systems, a new stairway system, an alternative power source for trains and water pipes to put out fires.

Amtrak also plans upgrades for a tunnel that runs under Baltimore and one that runs under the Supreme Court behind the Capitol.

Dan Prieto, a homeland security expert at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, said the Homeland Security Department should determine which tunnels are the most vital and vulnerable so scarce resources can be allocated properly.

“States and locals are not in a position to determine the national strategic value of their local assets,” Prieto said.

'We are not prepared'
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., plans a measure that would require the department to evaluate the rail tunnels and report to Congress in a year.

“We are not prepared,” he said.

Homeland Security spokesman Russ Knocke said the department is working on plans to identify areas of concern.

Prieto estimates that only about $300 million in federal money has been budgeted to upgrade railway infrastructure since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Sens. Richard Shelby, R-Ala., and Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., tried unsuccessfully to add $1.16 billion for rail security to the Homeland Security Department spending bill. Some $790 million of that total could have paid for building projects, repairs and equipment.

But the Senate ended up voting to cut rail security money to $100 million, $50 million less than the House approved and $50 million less than was budgeted last year. Approval of the spending bill is not expected until September.

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