WASHINGTON – Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., sought information Thursday about the safety of the nation’s rail and transit systems in the event of a terrorist attack and said new technologies could vastly improve the security of train and subway passengers.
At a hearing entitled “Riding the Rails: How Secure is our Passenger and Transit Infrastructure?” Lieberman said rail and transit systems were particularly vulnerable to terrorist attack because of the numbers of people they carry, on predictable routes, and at predictable times.
“Transit security must not be side-tracked while other homeland defense concerns claim our time and resources,” he warned. “We need to bring as much talent, and focus, as many tools, training and technology, and ultimately, as much financial support to the challenge of securing our rails as we do to the security of other elements of our critical infrastructure.”
Each year, America’s public transportation infrastructure – which includes subways, light rail, commuter rail services as well as buses and ferries – carries 9 billion passengers. That compares to approximately 700 million air travelers annually. Transit systems, in fact, have experienced the highest growth rate of any transportation mode over the past five years.
“Our economy depends on the smooth operation of the rail system,” Lieberman said. “We must ask what the federal government is doing and what more it must do – in conjunction with the private sector and state and local governments – to protect America’s rail passengers.”
Several witnesses described how new technologies could be used to increase rail security. Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority General Manager Richard White said his system would soon be using, on a pilot basis, facial recognition technology and chemical sensors.
“Of course, the great hope is technology,” Lieberman said. “The federal government has a special role to accelerate and encourage the use of technologies related to security.”
Thursday’s hearing was the latest in a dozen hearings the Governmental Affairs Committee has held to examine the federal government’s role in preventing, preparing for and responding to a terrorist attack. At each one, Senator Lieberman has sought to determine how the federal government can better organize itself to quickly and effectively respond to acts of terror and proactively prevent future threats.
“The enormous number of people who ride the rails begins to explain why transit systems must be well protected,” Lieberman said. “The fact is that our transportation system plays a critical role in the very security of the nation. For example, passenger and transit rails are essential components of any evacuation from a disaster site,” as was the case in New York and Washington on September 11.
In the aftermath of Sept 11, Amtrak also helped bring emergency supplies to New York, provided passage for families of the World Trade Center victims, and helped transport mail around the country.
“The federal government clearly has a role to play in overseeing and stimulating the safety of our rail systems,” Lieberman concluded. “We’re never going to achieve total security but the federal government must help transit officials bear the burdensome costs of security.”