GAO report cites lack of coordination on rail security

The federal government's efforts to protect mass transit systems from terrorists are disjointed and do not receive enough input from system owners, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

At least four federal agencies promote rail security. The lead agency, the Transportation Security Administration, has not yet completed its vulnerability and risk assessment for mass transit systems, GAO said in the report, issued Oct. 7.

As of July, TSA had not yet finished a risk assessment for the passenger rail sector, nor had it developed a method on how to rank and compare risks. Furthermore, the agency had not collaborated sufficiently with mass transit system operators to get the information it needs to complete the risk assessments.

"Until both of these efforts have been accomplished, in collaboration with rail industry stakeholders, TSA will not be able to prioritize passenger rail assets based on risk and help guide investment decisions to protect them," GAO said in the report.

After the Madrid subway bombings in March 2004, TSA issued emergency instructions to the 32 U.S. mass transit systems that carry 11 million passengers a day. In October 2004, TSA completed an overall threat assessment for mass transit, passenger rail and freight rail systems. As of May 2005, TSA had performed individual assessments on 700 transit stations and 73 bridges and tunnels, but 370 assessments remained to be completed, GAO said.

Other federal agencies, including the Homeland Security Department's Office for Domestic Preparedness, and the Transportation Department's Federal Transit and Federal Railroad administrations, are working separately to promote mass transit security. As of July, the domestic preparedness office had finished seven risk assessments, and expected to do 12 more.

Sometimes the agencies' guidelines are conflicting, such as TSA's post-Madrid order that rail engineer compartment doors be locked, which runs counter to the Federal Railroad Administration rules, GAO said. While the departments of Homeland Security and Transportation have signed a memorandum to work together and have begun doing so, there is no timetable for implementing agreements, GAO said.

The Homeland Security Department expects to release an updated National Infrastructure Protection Plan in November, and TSA is expected to issue a rail security plan in February 2006. Until those efforts are completed, it may not be possible to prioritize and rank the risks facing mass transit systems, compared to the risks of attacks on other sectors, such as water, energy, health care and financial services, GAO said.

Meanwhile, operators of the 32 mass transit systems are installing new closed-circuit TV, emergency phone and access control systems for sensitive areas such as tunnels and control rooms, among other measures to heighten security, GAO said in the report.

Closed-circuit TV systems have been installed or upgraded in 29 systems. One system, New Jersey Transit, has deployed "smart" video that sounds an alarm indicating a significant event, such as when a package has been left unattended. Several other operators expressed interest in smart video systems, the GAO said.

Twenty-three of the 32 mass transit systems had installed or upgraded access control systems to sensitive areas such as tunnels, employee-only areas and control rooms; 22 have removed trash bins to prevent bombs from being placed in those containers; and 18 have upgraded or installed new emergency phone systems, GAO said.

GAO recommended that the federal government and mass transit agencies consider measures being taken in Europe and Asia, including conducting covert testing of the system by placing suspicious packages for employees to find, providing a central clearinghouse on best practices and technologies available for security, and conducting random screening of passengers and their belongings.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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