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No-fly, no-ride?
Amtrak-safe enough

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Date published: 5/15/2011

AMTRAK last month hit a new high in ridership: 2.7 million passen- gers, up nearly 10 percent from April 2010. On the busy Washington-Boston Northeast Regional service, the increase was 13.3 percent, and Acela trains carried 2.9 percent more passengers. That's good news! Now, how can some politician mess this up?

New York Democrat Sen. Chuck Schumer has an idea: He thinks rail carriers ought to increase security in light of the revelation that al-Qaida was considering an attack on the U.S. train system. Mr. Schumer wants Amtrak to screen passengers with the same no-fly list used by airlines. And that could be just the beginning of security enhancements "necessitated" by vague threats and potentialities. Never waste a crisis, right?

We can picture it now: passengers standing in their socks in the rain at the Fredericksburg train station, having just gone through a security screening. Then the train arrives--on the other track.

Let's be reasonable: First, the "no-fly list" is deeply flawed. There are 20,000 names on the list, at least 1,000 of which are duplicates and some of which belong to people now dead or imprisoned. Three hundred new names are added every day. Stories of mistaken identities abound, even cases in which children are erroneously barred from flying because of an unfortunate name (parents, don't name your babies Osama.). The program that contains the list is unwieldy and prone to crashing, causing airport delays.

Second, trains, unlike airplanes, have multiple access points, and their stations are as much shopping/eating/tourism destinations as embarkation platforms (witness the amazingly transformed Union Station in Washington). This complicates security. And, although some attacks in Europe involved backpacks left on train platforms, it's far more likely that a terrorist group would sabotage a fixed point (such as on a bridge or in a tunnel) on Amtrak's 21,000 miles of tracks than try to carry explosives onto a train.

Taking the train, especially in the Northeast Corridor, is a joy compared to the frustrations these days of air travel, with its security lines, "enhanced pat-downs," and joyless screeners. Mr. Schumer's suggestion is much like locking your daughter in a tower--she may be "safe," but she won't be living.


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