Train Security: Is a "No-Ride" List Needed?

Last Updated May 10, 2011 4:52 PM EDT

Amtrak on Afton Mountain
If you're a frequent business traveler like me, airport security measures continue to be frustrating. Now U.S. Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has called for a "no-ride" list for Amtrak, modeled after the no-fly list that the federal authorities provide to airlines to keep suspected terrorists off flights. Schumer notes that data seized from Osama bin Laden's compound in Pakistan pointed to a possible plan to attack America's rail system.

Does train security need to be improved? Yes.

Is Schumer's plan doomed to fail? I think so.

Under the current rules, airlines must submit prospective manifests of passengers to U.S. officials at least two hours before departure time so the list can be checked against that no-fly list. Makes sense. But for Amtrak? What's next, a no-ride list for buses? A no-shop list for malls? Let's not forget that no-cross list for busy auto intersections.

While I understand the senator's reaction and his call to action, the practical aspects of this suggestion can't work under the current system. If you thought Amtrak trains had a bad ontime performance before, you ain't seen nothing yet.

1. How would the Department of Homeland Security operate such a list? Under Schumer's plan, Amtrak would be responsible for cross-checking passenger photo IDs against the no-ride list before boarding the trains.

2. Would that also mean TSA scanning of passenger bags at Amtrak stations? Magnetometers and body scanners? It sounds like a good idea, except the way most Amtrak stations are currently designed, the physical layout would almost certainly mean the passenger waiting line would start about four blocks from most stations. Believe it or not, in FY2010, Amtrak carried nearly 29 million passengers.

Critics have called US post-airline security methods "security theater," measures that are designed to make people feel safer--but don't actually succeed in catching terrorists. Of course, security is needed, but the execution of security, the lack of continuity, and different rules for different places (or the different application of the same rules) continue to be mind-boggling.

I am writing from New Zealand, where, in the last two days, I did not have to take off my belt to go through security. I did not have to take off my shoes off. I did not have to remove my jacket. The harshest inspection was to prevent me from bringing any fruit into the country.

In South Africa last week, I had to take out my laptop, but didn't have to remove my shoes.

Schumer's proposal would only add to this byzantine patchwork.

Security Measures that Make Sense
Schumer, however, called for something I DO support: funding for security measures to inspect train tracks.

Yesterday, the Obama administration released the $2 billion in funding rejected by Florida Governor Rick Scott, and reallocated the money to 15 states for improvements and high-speed rail projects.

Yet there has been no official word on increased security measures in the wake of the new information collected from bin Laden's compound.

But to implement Schumer's suggestions the way the system is currently constructed, and as well intended as they are, pose a serious operational threat to the train system itself. If they can't be implemented in an effective way, then we have the ingredients for a travel nightmare that make current airport security look downright intelligent by comparison.

Are you in support of increasing security on America's rail system? What measures would you support?

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Photo credit: Flickr user jpmueller99
  • Peter Greenberg

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