Limited funding was approved to bolster passenger-train security following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Nine days after the attacks, Amtrak asked Congress for $3.2 billion in emergency operating funds, including about a half-billion dollars for improving the safety of Amtrak's infrastructure and strengthening Amtrak's internal-security measures.
“Considering the uncertainty facing our airline industry, it is of fundamental importance that Amtrak is provided with the tools to continue to handle additional capacity in a safe and efficient manner during this crisis period,” 16 senators, mostly from states along Amtrak's Northeast Corridor, said in a letter to Norman Y. Mineta, secretary of the Department of Transportation (DOT).
“What we're doing on airport security and airline security is acting after the horse is out of the barn,” Sen. Joseph Biden Jr., D-Del., said on the Senate floor in October. “God forbid the horse gets out of another barn. We have a chance now, not after there's some catastrophe on our passenger rail system, to do something.”
Of the $3.2 billion that Amtrak initially requested, the railroad has received $5 million for security improvements and $100 million for safety improvements to Amtrak's tunnels and bridges, says Amtrak spokesman Dan Stessel.
Three Senate bills that seek additional funds for rail security successfully passed committee votes recently, but the full Senate has yet to approve any of them, says Andy Davis, press aide to Sen. Ernest F. Hollings, D-S.C., chairman of the Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, who with Biden has sponsored one of the proposed railroad security bills.
Meanwhile, Amtrak instituted several new security measures after Sept. 11. For example, passengers must present valid identification to claim their tickets, and only ticketed passengers are allowed on the platforms at major rail stations. In addition, the 350-member Amtrak security force has increased patrols and begun using bomb-sniffing dogs.
However, the rail system does not screen passenger bags, and some remote rail stops allow passengers to board without presenting valid identification.
Experts concede that railroads present the possibility for terrorist attacks, but they don't consider passenger railroads a prime target for terrorism. “Most of the [terrorist] scenarios you can conjure up for railroads — even the most realistic — don't really play well to what the bad guys are trying to accomplish,” says Phil Anderson, an expert on homeland security at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.
Rail advocates agree. “You can't do much with a train once you have it, and because of that I think an attack on a train is possible but not probable,” says James Brunkenhoefer, legislative director for the United Transportation Union, which represents about 125,000 active and retired railroad, bus and mass-transit workers.
Amtrak's Stessel adds that locomotives are secured from outside intrusion, making it very difficult for someone to take control of an entire train. Even if a terorist did seize control of a locomotive, say Amtrak officials, a variety of safety measures are in place that would prevent a hijacker from ramming a train into a railroad station at high speed.
Currently, the DOT's Transportation Security Agency (TSA) and Amtrak are considering security measures in addition to those already in place, like onboard identification checks for passengers and more stringent passenger-identification requirements. However, neither will comment on specific plans for fear of compromising their effectiveness. “Security aboard Amtrak trains is one of our major priorities,” says TSA spokesman David Steigman.
Some are skeptical of the TSA's involvement with rail security. “The TSA has been accused of not understanding airports, and if they don't understand air travel I don't want to think about what they don't know about rail,” says Ross B. Capon, executive director of the National Association of Rail Passengers.
Others see Amtrak's security efforts as an attempt to quell public fears about rail travel after Sept. 11. “Why are the TSA and Amtrak doing this stuff? To reassure the public. The public has to believe Amtrak is safe for rail travel to function properly,” Anderson says.
Despite Amtrak's efforts, some vulnerability may be inherent in rail travel, Stessel says. “Rail systems are fundamentally open transportation systems,” he says. “Just as it would be impossible to secure the New York City subway from all threats, it is very difficult to make an airtight security system on a railroad.”
Nice, David C. , Amtrak: The History and Politics of a National Railroad, Lynne Rienner Publishers, 1998.
A good overview of the struggles that led to the creation of Amtrak in 1970, with numerous charts, graphs and tables. Nice is a professor of political science at Washington State University.
Cappo, Joe , “If Amtrak Requires U.S. Subsidy, So Be It,” Crain's Chicago Business
, July 1, 2001.
Cappo argues that Congress should repeal the law requiring Amtrak to become operationally self-sufficient, noting that there is no such requirement for highway construction.
Hulse, Carl , “Push for Changes at Amtrak Is Seen in Shaping Budget,” The New York Times
, Aug. 24, 2002.
Hulse outlines the Bush administration's efforts to get Congress to slash Amtrak's funding unless the railroad agrees to far-reaching reforms.
Johnston, Bob , “Amtrak Jumps a Money Hurdle, but Others Loom,” Trains Magazine
, Oct. 1, 2002.
Johnson documents Amtrak's efforts to overcome this summer's cash crisis and describes other problems that Amtrak is facing, such as an equipment shortages.
Kraft, Edwin R. , “Amtrak Numbers Racket,” TRAINS Magazine
, Oct. 1, 2002.
A transportation consultant bucks conventional wisdom by arguing that Amtrak is being driven into bankruptcy by its Northeast Corridor trains, not its long-distance service.
Phillips, Don , “Acela Rapidly Disappoints: New Amtrak Trains Fast but Unreliable,” The Washington Post
, Aug. 6, 2002.
Phillips documents the problems that have plagued the Acela Express, Amtrak's high-speed rail system.
Tierney, John , “Amtrak Must Die: A Train Lover's Lament,” The New York Times Magazine
, June 16, 2002.
A “rail fan” reluctantly concludes the government must stop subsidizing the railroad.
Reports and Studies
“Modern Passenger Trains: A National Necessity,” National Association of Railroad Passengers, June 2002.
This pro-Amtrak report calls for continued government subsidies for passenger rail, including a rail trust fund to pay for an expanded intercity rail network.
“Fiscal Year 2003 Business Plan and Grant Request,” National Railroad Passenger Corporation, Feb. 15, 2002.
Amtrak's annual budget request to Congress makes the case for continued government subsidies for intercity passenger rail service. It describes how Amtrak would be forced to shut down if it does not get the full $1.2 billion that it requested from the federal government in fiscal 2003.
Vranich, Joseph, Cornelius Chapman and Edward L. Hudgins , “A Plan to Liquidate Amtrak,” The Cato Institute, Feb. 8, 2002.
This report says that dissolving Amtrak would “stop the waste of taxpayers' dollars” and “give parts of Amtrak's passenger operations the best chance of survival.” Vranich is a former member of the Amtrak Reform Council, Chapman a Boston lawyer and Hudgins a former director of regulatory studies at Cato.
Chapman, Steve , “Amtrak Takes Us for a Ride,” The Chicago Tribune, June 27, 2002.
A member of the Tribune's editorial board argues that passenger rail cannot compete with automobile and airline travel and that “it's time we stopped lavishing tax dollars on a form of transportation that has mostly outlived its usefulness.”
Kasindorf, Martin , “The Bullet Train Concept is Picking up Speed,” USA Today, Oct. 11, 2002.
High-speed rail proponents say the first leg of the 700-mile, $25 billion California system could be operating within 10 years. In Florida, a Tampa Bay-Orlando link could be operational by 2006.
Schofield, Michael , “Fast-Track Ideas About Slow-Motion Travel,” The Washington Post, Sept. 8, 2002.
Drawing from the successful European experience, a retired State Department official argues that the United States should invest in high-speed rail in order to alleviate highway congestion, overcrowded airports and suburban sprawl.
Shapiro, Walter , “Amtrak Chief Determined to Ride Out Crises that Threaten System,” USA Today, Aug. 30, 2002.
Shapiro offers a colorful and insightful profile of Amtrak President David Gunn, who assumed control of the troubled railroad in mid-May. Gunn, 65, tells Shapiro that he has occasionally said to himself, “ 'Christ, what am I doing here?'”
Sloan, Allan , “Planes, Trains and Politicians,” Newsweek, Oct. 7, 2002.
Newsweek's Wall Street editor explores the reasons why Amtrak is rebuked for not breaking even, while the airlines, which were in big financial trouble even before last year's terrorist attacks, get so much federal assistance.