WASHINGTON – Later this spring, the government will begin testing a way to screen rail passengers and their luggage to see if it can quickly and accurately detect security risks, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge (search) said Monday.
Ridge said the project would take place at a yet-to-be determined Amtrak commuter rail station. He offered few details about the way rail passengers would be screened, but stressed that it won't resemble security checkpoints at airports.
"We cannot apply an aviation standard to railroads and mass transit," he said. "The security environment for trains will never resemble aviation."
Homeland Security (search) officials said the purpose of the project would be to test new technologies and screening concepts to see if they could be applied to trains, which depend on passengers being able to get on and off cars quickly.
Ridge's announcement came a day before a Senate Commerce Committee (search) hearing on what can be done to protect the U.S. rail system from attacks like the bombings in Spain that killed 202 and injured more than 1,800.
"There are no indications terrorists are planning similar attacks in the United States any time soon," Ridge said. But, he said, the Madrid bombings were a reminder that terrorists continue to exploit security gaps.
Ridge 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.
Since the Madrid bombings, members of Congress have criticized Homeland Security for focusing too heavily on aviation security at the expense of other kinds of transportation.
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.
Delaware Sens. Joseph Biden and Thomas Carper, both Democrats, have proposed spending more than $1 billion for such security measures as police patrols, lighting, fencing and closed-circuit television. They also want to pay for securing railroad tunnels along the heavily traveled train route from Washington to Boston.
"Over two years have gone by, and virtually nothing has been done to make passenger rail safer," Biden said in a statement.
The Transportation Security Administration, an agency of the Homeland Security Department, was criticized by congressional auditors last year for failing to issue transportation security standards. The auditors also said the TSA hadn't reached agreement with other transportation agencies on how to divide security responsibilities.
The Federal Railroad Administration and the Federal Transit Administration also oversee rail and transit security.
The author of the General Accounting Office report, Peter Guerrero, said on Monday that the TSA has yet to come to an agreement with the other agencies.
"Little has changed," Guerrero said.