WASHINGTON – The federal government should move quickly to upgrade emergency systems in Amtrak tunnels under the U.S. Supreme Court and to New York's Penn Station (search) to avoid a tragedy as disastrous as the Sept. 11 attacks, Sen. Joseph Biden said Tuesday.
Hundreds of thousands of people travel through the six Penn Station tunnels every day, Biden, D-Del., told the Senate Commerce Committee.
Though the entire U.S. rail system can't be protected from terrorism, the tunnels should be fixed because of their vulnerability to an attack that could result in mass casualties, he said.
"There are just some things rock simple," Biden said. "We should fix the tunnels now."
Biden and Sen. Thomas Carper have proposed a bill that would upgrade emergency measures in the tunnels such as better ventilation and lighting.
The two Delaware Democrats also want to pay for securing railroad tunnels along the heavily traveled train route from Washington to Boston, including Baltimore.
"You can significantly increase the prospect that a catastrophe along the proportions of 9-11 won't happen if we're smart," Biden said.
Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain, R-Ariz., said he intended the committee to pass Biden's bill before the Senate's April recess.
The committee passed a similar measure after Sept. 11, 2001, but the Senate never had an opportunity to vote on it.
McCain also criticized the Bush administration for failing to develop a coordinated plan to protect railroad and mass transit systems.
The government this spring will begin testing a way to screen rail passengers and their luggage to see if it can quickly and accurately detect security risks as part of an effort to improve railway security.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced the project on Monday as he outlined several ideas to improve rail security. After the March 11 railway bombings in Madrid, the administration and Congress want to make sure that terrorists don't attack the U.S. rail system.
The test project would take place at a yet-to-be determined Amtrak commuter rail station. Ridge stressed that the program won't resemble security checkpoints at airports because mass transit systems and railroads require easy access.
"We think this program will provide the department with an opportunity to test new technologies and screening concepts that could be used to deploy targeted screening in high-threat areas or in response to specific intelligence," Ridge said.
He also said the Homeland Security Department would make available to local law enforcement agencies specially trained bomb-sniffing dogs and help them train their own canine units.
A bill sponsored by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, would increase penalties for attacking mass transit and passenger rail systems. Ridge said he supports the proposal.
The Bush administration has spent $12 billion on aviation security since the Sept. 11 terror attacks. In contrast, railroads and transit agencies received $65 million in grants in 2003 and $50 million in 2004.
Last year, congressional auditors criticized the Transportation Security Administration (search), a Homeland Security agency, for failing to issue transportation security standards. They also said the TSA had failed to reach an agreement with other transportation agencies on how to divide security responsibilities, which creates confusion.
Rail and transit security is also overseen by the Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration, which are part of the Transportation Department.
At the beginning of the Iraq war, the TSA and Transportation Department were asking transportation systems to take different security measures.
Peter Guerrero, author of the report by Congress' General Accounting Office (search), said on Monday that the TSA has yet to reach an agreement with the other agencies.
"Little has changed," Guerrero said.