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Insta-CoGo: Will Amtrak Be More Secure?

Cindy Loose

The plan to increase security on Amtrak gets no argument from me, in theory at least. But don't you have to wonder about the effectiveness of various aspects of the plan?

First off, both uniformed and plain clothes officers will be riding the trains and be present in stations. The so-called "Mobile Security Teams" will first be deployed on trains between Washington and New York. No arguments here; seems like a good idea, although I'm not sure I'm keen on the uniformed guards having automatic weapons. Unless the trains are being stormed by entire brigades of terrorists, it seems like an ordinary gun would do the trick, and police with automatic weapons always scare me.

Teams will also show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screeening areas. Not everyone will pass through, as they'll be random. Those pulled out of line will have their bags swiped with a swab that is put through an explosives detection machine. If the test is positive, the bag owner will have his bags searched. Amtrak predicts it won't delay any trains and the process will only take a minute. Okay, let's see how that goes, although CoGo is hoping that the agents choosing passengers have some training in spotting suspicious behavior. If it's the old "third passenger gets pulled out" it seems rather stupid and ineffective to me.

The agents will also do random identification checks. This strikes me as false security, and nothing more than annoying. What use is it to look at I.D.s unless you're comparing a secure means of identification to an exhaustive data base? Okay, so I have an I.D. How does that make me less of a risk, especially when any teen who wants to drink can figure out how to get a fake I.D.?

Which brings us to Amtrak's confounding longer-term security procedure: If you buy your ticket from an agent at the station, you have to show ID. If you buy a ticket at a kiosk, you don't show I.D.

Either showing I.D. is helpful in some obscure way CoGo can't see, or it's not. If showing I.D. in fact reduces risk somehow, why do it at one point of sale and not another?

Officials take note: You need the cooperation of the general populace, and you erode that support with so-called security measures that seem bogus and false. Either convince us they make sense, or give it up.

Will you feel safer on Amtrak knowing that new security procedures are in place?

By Cindy Loose |  February 19, 2008; 12:58 PM ET  | Category:  Cindy Loose , Insta-CoGo
Previous: It Came From the Chat: Are Searches and Seizures Unreasonable? | Next: Insta-Q&A: Mackinac Island's Grand Hotel

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When you buy your ticket at a kiosk, it claims that the conductor will verify your i.d. on board. I think that out of dozens of times I've taken the train, they've done so maybe twice, but it's not strictly accuracte to say that buying it at a kiosk means you don't have to show i.d.

Posted by: traingeek | February 19, 2008 4:01 PM

Hey Traingeek,

You make a good point, and coincidentally, I finally got a callback from Amtrak and they answered my question about the inconsistency of asking for I.D. at one point of sale but not another. They say that the person at the kiosk using a credit card is in effect using his or her credit card as I.D.

But the primary problem remains: The I.D. isn't checked against anything. For flights, there are do not fly lists, and although they are not complete and bad people meaning harm might not be on the bad people list, at least I.D. is checked against something, so an I.D. check might screen out at least some bad guys. But what's the point of bothering to look at I.D. if it's not checked against anything? I mean it's not like someone's going to have I.D. saying: "Joe Shmoe, terrorist."

Posted by: cindy loose | February 19, 2008 4:24 PM

Trains can't be driven into crowded buildings so the damage is limited to the passengers. Screening Amtrak is really no different than screening a building in which a couple hundred people might visit. In Europe, attacking passenger rail could be a major blow, but in the United States the overwhelminng majority of people drive or fly so an attack on Amtrak wouldn't accomplish what the terrorists want.

Posted by: Tom | February 19, 2008 4:56 PM

Tom, I agree with you to a point. Yes not as many people in the US ride Amtrak, as often as people ride the rails in Europe. But a bomb on one of the Northeast corridor Amtrak routes could cause major damage. What if the the explosion happened just as a train was pulling into a major station? Sure the casualties might only be 30 - 100 people hurt with only 10 or so fatalities, but it would certainly be enough to make headlines around the world. Is't that the main goal? dead bodies are just a plus.

Posted by: rja112 | February 20, 2008 2:44 AM

Thanks for the analysis rja112. We've added you to the "no fly" list.

Posted by: TSA | February 20, 2008 6:10 AM

Cindy, you make an excellent point. I would feel no safer on Amtrak with these "security" measures in place than I do now flying with their "security" measures.
It's all a dog-and-pony show.

Posted by: Cynical Sally | February 20, 2008 2:40 PM

I don't think I'll feel any safer. But I'll be p***ed if that few minutes of extra screening is the difference between getting a forward-facing window seat in the quiet car for the long ride to NYC, and not getting it. And I think this screening setup will be much harder to administer in stations like NY-Penn Station and Philly-30th St., where the track is posted only minutes before departure and there's a mad rush to get there, as opposed to the predetermined tracks and orderly lines at Union Station.

Posted by: jane | February 20, 2008 3:39 PM

Travel in the USA is becoming a major headache. It doesn't matter if you're flying or taking the train; you can still look forward to some goon pawing through your stuff and feeling you up.


Posted by: OmegaWolf747 | February 23, 2008 7:25 PM

Travel in the USA is becoming a major headache. It doesn't matter if you're flying or taking the train; you can still look forward to some goon pawing through your stuff and feeling you up.


Posted by: OmegaWolf747 | February 23, 2008 7:27 PM

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