Railroads ‘will not be a soft target’
Hours after the FBI warned that terrorists could be targeting American railroad lines, trains and trestles, transportation officials in Pittsburgh and nationwide said they were on track with a security response planned since Sept. 11, 2001.
Now the waiting begins along the 5,000 miles of railroad tracks that crisscross Pennsylvania, the sixth-highest total in a nation that’s home to nearly 150,000 miles of track.
“The railroads have long had in place emergency response plans for incidents and natural disasters,” said Cathy Burns, a spokeswoman for CSX Transportation at the rail company’s Jacksonville, Fla., headquarters. “But we all know the environment we’re talking about today is very different.”
The FBI on Thursday warned state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide about a possible attack soon on U.S. transportation systems, railroads in particular.
Officials said the warning, based on interviews with al-Qaida prisoners detained in Cuba, suggests that terrorists could try to take out bridges, key sections of railroad tracks or train engines in an effort to derail train cars and maximize damage. Concerns were deepened by captured al-Qaida photographs of U.S. railroad engines, cars and crossings, the agency said.
“Information from debriefings of al-Qaida detainees as of mid-October indicates the group has considered directly targeting U.S. passenger trains, possibly using operatives who have a Western appearance,” the FBI said in a statement.
The news put railroad company officials and transportation regulators on alert, but they said they’re confident in the security measures they’ve put in place over the past year.
Industry officials refuse to give specifics, but the measures include an around-the-clock operations center in the nation’s capital for secure communications between rail carriers and emergency officials, restricted access to railroad tracks and freight yards and stepped-up surveillance of rail facilities.
“The nation’s railroads will not be a soft target for terrorists,” Association of American Railroads Chief Executive and President Edward Hamberger said in a statement yesterday.
The Washington, D.C.-based association represents the major freight railroads in North America, as well as Amtrak and other passenger railroads. In the months after the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks, the association worked with railroads and federal law enforcement, security and intelligence leaders on “a thorough risk analysis of the railroad network under the new paradigm of terrorism,” spokeswoman Peggy Wilhide said.
“So we already had the plan in place when the FBI issued this warning, and we were able to immediately go to the plan,” she said.
Some in the rail industry, however, said the security measures undertaken so far are not enough.
Don Hahs, president of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers, issued an open letter yesterday to labor leaders, rail carriers and federal officials, calling for an immediate anti-terrorism summit in light of the FBI warning. The Cleveland, Ohio-based union represents 35,000 locomotive engineers in the United States and Canada.
“We need to address this issue in order to ensure a safe workplace for our members, but also to ensure the safety of the traveling public,” Hahs said.
The 145,000 miles of track stretching across the U.S. make safety a difficult thing to guarantee, industry officials acknowledge.
In Pennsylvania, home to 60 railroads — more than any other state — the two largest rail operators are Norfolk Southern Corp, which operates more than 2,500 miles of track here, and CSX Transportation.
CSX transports 30 million tons of cargo along more than 1,000 miles of track in Pennsylvania, with rail yards in New Castle, Pittsburgh and Philadelphia. Most of that $157 million in cargo is agricultural products, metals, minerals and coal.
Among the 2,500 products classified as hazardous chemicals by the U.S. Department of Transportation, industry officials say many are everyday items transported regularly — everything from phosphoric acid used in carbonated soda to ammonia for fertilizer and chlorine for disinfectants.
CSX Transportation’s Burns said that because the cargo aboard trains differs from day to day, rail could be a harder target for terrorists.
“The rail industry is more random,” she said. “What is on a train today is not going to be on a train tomorrow.”
Passenger rail companies also were tightening security measures yesterday.
Amtrak President David Gunn said the company is taking steps to enhance security and passenger safety. He declined to elaborate, other than to say those steps would be clear to riders.
At Pittsburgh’s Downtown Amtrak station yesterday, most passengers said they weren’t too concerned about the FBI warning.
“It’s something to think about, but it’s not going to affect my plans,” said Joe Diequez, 42, of Ann Arbor, Mich. Diequez had driven to Pittsburgh to meet his wife, who works in Harrisburg and travels frequently by rail for business. “This is just something else we just have to live with.”
April Hutcheson, a spokeswoman for Gov. Mark Schweiker, said the state has been working with transportation and law enforcement agencies since Sept. 11, 2001, to tighten security.
“For the average person,” she said, “this latest warning means that he or she has to keep their eyes and ears open and report any suspicious action that they may witness.”
Staff writer George Aspiotes contributed to this report.