TT Talk - US Senate votes to scan all imports, but railmen complain of security gaps

On Thursday 14 September, the US Senate voted without dissent to tighten security at American seaports by scanning nearly all incoming cargo for "dirty bombs" and other nuclear weapons. The bill, approved 98 to 0 in a pre-election push on national defence, would increase safeguards on the rail systems that pick up cargo from ports and authorise 1,000 new agents to screen containers coming off ships. But the legislation does not go as far as some Democrats demanded in requiring inspections for all US-bound cargo before it leaves foreign ports. Almost 11 million containers a year are shipped to the United States. The plan, which authorises spending USD 835 million next year, "works toward a goal of getting to 100 percent screening" of cargo leaving foreign ports, said Senator Patty Murray one of the bill's authors. Senator Ted Stevens said the measure, similar to one approved by the House of Representatives in May, was "the most comprehensive approach to border security we have taken to date."

The Senate bill requires inspections of suspicious high-risk cargo at foreign ports. It also sets up a pilot program to scan for nuclear or "dirty bomb" materials in all U.S.-bound containers at three to-be-determined foreign ports. The trial would help determine if mandatory inspections would bottle up commerce and drive up costs, as Republicans fear.

However, while the US is scanning the horizon for the possibility of dirty bombs coming in by container ship, some people are pointing out that such a bomb could easily be created on US soil, by the simple expedient of attaching an explosive device to one of the thousands of tank cars of fuel and chemicals that are routinely moved by rail within the country. Every day, trains haul explosives, atomic waste and toxic chemicals over 140,000 miles of track, often right through the middle of cities and towns. One expert has estimated that an explosion of a tanker filled with chlorine in the right (or wrong) place could kill 100,000 people within 30 minutes.

Yet in spite of the obvious dangers, security at rail yards seems very lax. Fox TV recently reported that at the Roseville Yard outside Sacramento, California, the largest rail yard west of the Mississippi river, rail cars sit idle for hours at a time. The only apparent security at this location is a few "No Trespassing" signs, but railroad officials insist the rails and the cargo are carefully monitored and guarded.

"Rail transportation is the safest transportation to move goods across the country, and now, more so because of the added security after 9/11," said Union Pacific spokesman Mark Davis. "The rail industry participates in very detailed security discussions on a daily basis with all railroads and homeland security, and we are well aware of movements and very prepared."

While there has been sabotage, Davis said there has never been an act of terrorism on America's rail system. That's proof, he said, of just how secure the railways are. But in a recent survey, most conductors said they've had no anti-terrorist training, and yards like Roseville seem to be easy targets. Without any fencing to keep people out of Roseville, it was easy for the Fox News reporter to put an object on a passing freight train. The reporter used a pen, but it easily could have been something more deadly. Tim Smith, chairman of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen, pointed out that many of the freight cars had graffiti sprayed over them, as a further indication of the lack of security at rail yards, adding "if they've got time to paint their pictures, a terrorist's got plenty of time to plant a stack of C-4's on the side of the car and blow it up."

Critics, including many railway employees, are demanding the government and ownership step up, arguing the industry cannot turn its back on homeland security. Their fear is that it will take something like a London or Madrid train bombing to force the industry to make effective changes

Staff Author

TT Club