Christmas Travel: Keeping America's Trains Safe

Amtrak police scan trains for explosives and utilize undercover agents.

Dec. 22, 2010— -- ABOARD THE ACELA EXPRESS -- More than 28 million people each year ride on TEXTAmtrak trains and keeping them safe from terrorists or others who want to cause harm is no easy task.

Unlike airports, which have limited points of entry and in-your-face security, the nation's train stations are generally open and security measures are less obvious. While fliers are advised to show up hours before a flight, Amtrak passengers often rush up to the platform minutes before the train pulls away.

The world was reminded that trains can be targets back in 2004 when terrorists bombed several commuter trains in Madrid just three days before Spain's general elections. The 10 explosions on four separate trains killed 191 people and wounded more than 1,800.

In America, Amtrak officials are well-aware of the risks but also know that if they were to ever implement airport-style security at train stations, it would grind the system to a halt. So they need to find a way to keep passengers safe, but not slow travel.

That's where Sgt. Robert A. Smith and his black Labrador retriever Zorro come in.

Each morning they set out at random stations or on trains and search for anything out of place.

"He's an incredible partner but also an incredible sophisticated tool in detecting explosives," Smith said.

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They are just one of roughly 50 K-9 teams that the Amtrak Police department has deployed across the country. The department has 400 sworn officers that operate in the 46 states that Amtrak serves, according to Chief John O'Connor.

With more than 300 daily train routes, the K-9 teams can't be on every train. So Amtrak relies on the element of surprise.

"I'm big on being random and unpredictable," Smith explains. "Where we'll be, you can never know."

During a typical shift, Smith and Zorro might start in New York's Penn Station. They then might hop on a train, checking out baggage and passengers. Then they might patrol a station along the route before finding some other train back to New York.

The idea is to "give the perception that we're everywhere," Smith said. "We're a deterrence to the bad guys and a presence to passengers, giving them some piece of mind."

As Smith walked through an Acela Express train to Philadelphia the other day, most passengers interacted with him and Zorro. That's the point: if travelers trust him, they are more likely to point out anything suspicious.

"Can we pet him," three little boys asked as Zorro passed by.

"Well, you already are," Smith responded and then handed out cards -- almost like baseball cards -- of him with Zorro. On the back are vital statics about Smith (hometown: Bronx, N.Y.) and the Labrador (he has a birthday of Jan. 28 and weighs 65 pounds) and then safety tips and a phone number to call if passengers see anything unusual.

O'Connor notes that while the K-9 and other uniform patrols are there to be a show of force, Amtrak has plenty of other hidden security measures in place.

There is a team that just works on gathering intelligence. Undercover officers sometimes ride trains or are in stations watching to see who is watching the uniformed officers. Then there is a network of security cameras along with chemical, radiological and biological detectors that can hopefully alert the police to a weapon before it is used.

It's not just about protecting the public but also Amtrak property. Many Amtrak trains run on electricity which is transmitted through copper wires.

"In an economy like this, people will try to make money however they can," O'Connor said, explaining how undercover officers try to stop copper theft and black market sales.

Very few train systems around the world have airport-like security. The Eurostar between London and Paris and London and Brussels does, but it is basically a point-to-point service and is a high-visibility target because of its trip under the English Channel. Some European train stations have x-ray machines at their larger stations but are not screening everybody or every bag.

O'Connor said that in the U.S., given the frequent stops of Amtrak's trains, doing airport-like screening would "pretty much grind us to a halt."

"We do the best we can. We're not telling anybody it's 100 percent secure," he said. "We would have to have a sustained campaign of attacks before we got to a system of everybody being patted down and going through scans."

That said -- between Amtrak's extensive efforts and a public awareness campaign -- O'Connor believes there are enough measures in place to "make the bad guy think twice."

And what about the new law allowing firearms on trains?

Amtrak officials stress that firearms won't be allowed in the passenger compartments but only in checked luggage and only on certain routes. That is similar to airlines, which allow the transportation of unloaded weapons in the cargo hold. Not all stations Amtrak serves, or its trains, offer checked baggage service and Amtrak requires reservations 24 hours before departure.

And chances are, if you brought a gun on by mistake, Zorro will smell it.

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