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Rail security intensifies over terrorist concerns

The Northeast rail corridor is receiving heightened scrutiny from security officials over increasing concerns that the heavily trafficked commuter system is a prime terrorist target  heading into summer's political conventions.
/ Source: news services

The Northeast rail corridor is receiving heightened scrutiny from security officials over increasing concerns that the heavily trafficked commuter system is a prime terrorist target heading into this summer’s political conventions, which will be held in Boston and New York.

On Thursday night two Acela Express trains, Amtrak’s signature high-speed rail service, traveling from New York to Washington were stopped and searched by bomb-sniffing dogs, an Amtrak spokesperson told Nothing was found and the trains were allowed to continue after delays of about an hour, the spokesperson said.

The investigations were prompted by an anonymous tipster who called a local law enforcement office. The Amtrak spokesperson declined to identify the office.  Local police notified Amtrak and the two trains — one near Philadelphia and other near the Baltimore-Washington International airport — were then stopped and searched.

The searches came on the heels of the first federal security directive to protect rail passengers from terrorism. Issued by the Department of Homeland Security earlier Thursday, the directives require rail operators to designate security coordinators, remove trash cans in some places, conduct inspections and ask passengers and employees to report unattended property or suspicious behavior. More will be taken if the threat level is raised.

“For the first time in the history of mass transit, the federal government has taken a lead role in setting security standards for passenger rail and mass transit systems,” said DHS Undersecretary Asa Hutchinson. 

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, transit authorities have spent more than $1.7 billion on security, according to a transit association survey.  But that figure hardly begins to address security issues, industry officials say. It will take another $6 billion to make the rail industry secure, according to industry figures. That money is needed, industry officials say, to upgrade radio systems and closed-circuit television, provide testing for chemical and biological agents, build fences, hire more staff and pay for overtime and training.

Suspicious device found
A small, infrared device described as a "commercial motion detector" was discovered by a Southern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority employee on May 5 and turned over to the FBI for analysis, according to a joint FBI-SEPTA statement Friday. The device was found along attached to a rail in a rail car storage yard, the statement said.

Officials said the investigation of the device “shows no indication of any threat to the security of the SEPTA rail system,” nor is there any indication the device “has any nexus to terrorism.”

No arrests have been made and no extra security precautions have been taken, in part because rail officials were already on high alert because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the March 11 train bombing in Spain that killed 191 people.

Because of the heightened security awareness, transit police have been responding to reports of suspicious items on almost a daily basis, officials said. Most items are found to be personal articles lost or left behind by SEPTA passengers. For instance, an average of five cellular telephones are discovered every day in SEPTA vehicles or facilities.

Precaution abounds
Security officials in Boston and New York are already making controversial moves toward increasing mass transit security.  In New York officials have proposed banning all photography and videotaping of subways and buses by anyone without prior approval or in possession of  journalistic credentials. 

Boston officials took steps Thursday that area commuters hoped wouldn’t come: a planned shutdown of several miles of a major interstate highway during the afternoon rush hour and in the evening when delegates to the Democratic National Convention meet there in July.

“Those decisions are not made lightly and they are not made in a vacuum,” Secret Service security planner Scott Sheafe said. The Secret Service is in charge of security for the Democratic convention, being held July 26-29, and for the Republican National Convention, being held Aug. 30-Sept. 2 in New York City.

All vehicles in downtown Boston will be subject to random searches. To help ease the volume of traffic, hospitals have agreed to cancel elective surgeries that week.

Boston Mayor Thomas Menino asked companies to give employees options, such as working from home, and to encourage carpooling. Many area residents said they would take vacation that week or telecommute from home rather than face a traffic nightmare.

About 24,000 rail commuters use Boston-area trains on a daily basis and up to 200,000 motorists use highways.

The commuter rail will stop outside the city and riders will be bused into Boston. Subways will not stop at the North Station rail stop during the convention, and inner harbor commuter boat service from a wharf downtown will be suspended for the week.

MSNBC's Brock N. Meeks and The Associated Press contributed to this report.