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Technology Sought To Tighten Rail Security

America's big cities look to invest in technologies that will help secure the nation's rail systems
Railway security in the United States this week has received much attention in the wake of last week's rush-hour bombings in London, with politicians at the federal and local levels demanding more money be spent and improved technology be deployed to protect urban transit systems from terrorists.

Despite a series of Congressional hearings since Sept. 11, 2001, to identify and correct rail and transit vulnerabilities, "three and a half years later, the sad fact is the train has still not left the station when it comes to genuine rail and transit security," Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said at a press conference held Tuesday. Lieberman, ranking member of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, the chairman of that committee, were behind a Homeland Security Appropriations bill amendment approved Tuesday that would authorize $2.93 billion for homeland-security grants to states and require 25% of funding be spent on prevention.

On July 8, the day after the London bombings, Lieberman and senators Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., sent a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stating that the nation's rail and transit systems need more than $7 billion to adequately improve security while noting that about $300 million in federal funds had been allocated since 9/11.

Air travel and port security have received more funding for security technology than interior transit systems since 9/11, but last week's terrorist attacks on three London underground trains and a city bus have stirred fresh concerns in some of the United States' most populous areas.

In New York, the Metropolitan Transit Authority--which runs North America's largest transportation system, serving 14.6 million people across 5,000 square miles with more than 8,200 rail and subway cars and 734 rail stations--has recently been criticized for spending only $30 million of the $591 million in federal and state funds it has received since 9/11 to improve security. The agency has responded to the criticism by stating it plans by the end of the year to spend several hundred million dollars on security measures.

Meanwhile, New York State's Capital Program Review Board, which represents the state Senate, Assembly, Gov. George Pataki, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Wednesday approved $21.1 billion in funding over five years for city subways and 4,900 MTA buses, the Long Island Rail Road, and Metro North. Nearly $500 million is expected to be spent on security.

In Philadelphia, the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, or Septa, last week said it is buying "stoichiometric," or chemical-sensing, technology to check for explosives that may be present in abandoned baggage. Septa, which serves 1 million passengers daily and covers 2,200 square miles in a five-county region surrounding Philadelphia, plans by late September to implement two Siegma 3E3 explosive-detection systems developed by HiEnergy Technologies Inc.

The Siegma 3E3 works by bouncing neutrons off of the contents of a bag or container, and then catching the gamma rays that are returned. "Each chemical element emits a different wavelength of gamma rays," says Bogdan Maglich, HiEnergy's CEO, chairman, and chief technology officer. By analyzing the wavelengths of these gamma rays, the device can determine the type and amount of chemicals present without the need to open the bag or container. The Siegma 3E3 consists of a 100-pound aluminum suitcase containing a 100,000-volt particle accelerator. The suitcase is connected via a fiber-optic cable to a laptop or other portable computer running Siegma software. Wireless connectivity is not an option at this time when working with potential explosives, given that wireless signals have been used to detonate bombs.

Septa since late last year had been looking at explosives-detection technology, thanks to about $1 million in Homeland Security grant money that had become available, says Jack Wenke, captain of support services for Septa's police department. The agency plans to deploy the two Siegma 3E3 systems to its special operations officers, one in the busy downtown Philadelphia area and a second to serve outlying areas. "This will allow our officers to have a level of confidence that there's no explosives in a case that's abandoned," he says, adding that Septa receives at least a couple of reports of unattended baggage or briefcases daily. "We're looking for technology to help us do what we do better."

Septa is also planning within the next six months to upgrade its computer-aided dispatch system to include software that maps security threats. Wenke hopes to use information gathered by the Siegma 3E3 devices as part of that system. "There's a need for technology, public awareness, bomb-sniffing dogs, and anything else we can use," he says. "Within the past few days, you take things more seriously."

Several transit authorities, including the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority and San Francisco's Bay Area Rapid Transit system, are watching Septa to determine whether they should invest in HiEnergy's technology, Maglich says, adding that the FBI and Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration have also tested the company's products.

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