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The Washington Times - Stopping Terror on the Tracks

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Location: Washington, DC


The Washington Times - Stopping Terror on the Tracks

By Sen. Joe Biden

In a city famous for its monuments and museums, it may surprise many Washingtonians to know the most visited site in all D.C. is not a memorial or a Smithsonian institution, but a train station.

Every year 25 million people pass through Union Station. They, and the millions of Americans who ride the rails nationwide, deserve to know what their leaders are doing to protect them from the new threats we know exist.

More than three years after the most devastating attack on this nation since Pearl Harbor, President Bush and the U.S. Congress have yet to focus sufficient attention on the critically urgent need to safeguard U.S. railways and train stations.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001, legislation was offered to rush assistance to Amtrak so it could add more police officers, more dogs to sniff for bombs, additional security cameras, fencing for the yards, and tighter security for the major tunnels along the heavily trafficked Northeast Corridor. But we were told that plan would interfere with the quick passage of $15 billion for the airlines — mostly for financial aid, but also for their security. So we stepped aside, and chose to move rail security separately.

Instead of the quick action we were promised, years have passed with little progress on any of the plan's recommendations.

Security upgrades in U.S. airports have been substantial: increased police presence, thorough baggage inspection, and state-of-the-art scanner technologies make air travel safer.

But if you travel by rail, almost nothing has changed. Just recently, one troubled individual killed 11 innocent people and wreaked havoc on a rail system in California by simply driving his vehicle onto unguarded tracks.

We know passenger rail is a potential target of terrorists. The FBI has discovered evidence al Qaeda has directly targeted our rail systems for conventional and chemical attacks.

But despite those clear warnings, the Bush administration has not responded with any concrete steps to improve the safety of millions of people who ride trains.

Imagine the scene if an attack occurred in the train tunnel under Capitol Hill and the Supreme Court Building. It was built at the beginning of the last century and is still in use, with thousands of passengers traveling through it every day. It desperately needs security upgrades — simple yet vital improvements to add more fencing and barriers, better lighting, emergency access and exits, water sprinklers and electronic surveillance that could mean the difference between life and death for hundreds of people.

The 2005 Homeland Security budget calls for an additional $5 billion for aviation security, but only $150 million more for rail.

In its historic report to the American people, the September 11 Commission calls the stress on aviation security "fighting the last war." The commission also noted "opportunities to do harm are as great, or greater, in maritime and surface transportation," referring to risks to rail and the huge numbers of unchecked and unscreened containers arriving in our ports.

We need to do more.

A conservative railway protection program would cost about $1.1 billion. This money wouldn't solve all of Amtrak's security woes, but it would be a good first step toward closing the security gaps in our nation's rail systems.

I worked with John McCain and others in the Senate last year, and we passed a bipartisan bill to do just that. But with no push from the administration and no action by the House, that legislation was stopped dead in its tracks. We will redouble our efforts this year. I hope we can get it done.

It would be an enormous tragedy if this White House and this Congress continue doing little or nothing, waiting until we experience another disaster. When terror strikes, we will not be able to say we have not been warned.

The millions of people who pass through Union Station, and the millions more in other stations around the country, deserve better.

Sen. Joe Biden, Delaware Democrat, commutes to Washington D.C. daily on Amtrak when the Senate is in session.

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