Amtrak’s Acela Express trains are top-dollar between Washington, New York and Boston.
Bad for airlines, good for rail
U.S., U.K passenger rails see upsurge
By Leo King
What was bad for Airlines last week following the terrorist threat to both the United States and the United Kingdom became good news for passenger railroads: traffic surged.
Amtrak reported an uptick in passenger counts, as did EuroStar and other railways across the pond.
The Associated Press reported on Monday that as the U.S. government continued to adjust the list of things that airline passengers can carry, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff reassured Americans that things would only go so far.
“I don’t see us moving to a total ban on hand baggage at this point,” he said Sunday on ABC’s This Week.
The Transportation Security Administration announced new rules Sunday giving airline passengers permission to carry up to 4 ounces of liquid nonprescription medicine. TSA had previously banned all liquid medications.
TSA also said all passengers will be instructed to remove their shoes during security checks. The shoes have to be placed on an X-ray belt for screening before passengers can put them back on. Until now, the agency had strongly suggested putting shoes on the screening belt but hadn’t required it.
Later Sunday, the Homeland Security Department reduced the threat level from red, for “severe,” to orange, for “high,” for flights from Britain bound for the United States. All other flights operating in or destined for the United States remain at orange.
Chertoff said, “This does not mean the threat is over. The investigation continues to follow all leads.”
British officials last week thwarted a terrorist plot involving airplanes bound from Britain to the U.S. The alleged conspirators had planned to blow up as many as 10 planes flying from Britain to the U.S. using liquid explosives, which TSA’s security equipment cannot detect in carry-on luggage.
Airport travelers also should expect to see broader use of police-trained sniffing dogs, TSA said, along with random gate inspections and bag searches, but the TSA is limited by law to 45,000 screeners at the 450 commercial airports.
Travelers turn to Amtrak after airline terrorism plot
Bloomberg News writer Ripley Watson reported on Saturday Amtrak said bookings rose 26 percent Thursday as travelers considered alternatives to airlines. The railroad doesn’t extensively screen luggage or require passengers to arrive before departure time.
Amtrak, the U.S. passenger railroad, said bookings rose 26 percent Thursday as travelers weighed alternatives to airlines after British police said they foiled a terrorist plot to blow up planes over the Atlantic.
Calls to Amtrak’s customer-service centers also increased 14 percent from a year earlier to 50,000, spokesman Clifford Black said Friday. The Washington-based railroad didn’t give a total for the bookings, made by phone or on the Internet.
“Some of the inquiries were based on the reported security delays at airports,” Black said. “We know that because some of the callers said so.”
Ticket sales Thursday rose 15 percent, the same pace as in August’s first nine days, Black said. At this time in 2005, Amtrak was restarting premium-priced trains [Acela Express] between Boston and Washington that had been idled for three months to fix the brakes. Black said Amtrak travel also might be increasing because of higher gasoline prices and more punctual service.
“Americans certainly are looking for other options and a choice to do something else for their method of transportation,” said David Johnson, assistant director of the National Association of Railroad Passengers consumer advocacy group. “America needs passenger rail, and the American public is demanding it.”
The increase in Amtrak reservations might not result in a matching gain in sales, because the railroad typically gives customers several days to buy tickets or cancel their plans. Reservations can be made as long as 400 days in advance.
Amtrak, in contrast to airports, doesn’t extensively screen luggage or require passengers to arrive before the scheduled departure time. The railroad said on its website that it deployed more police and is conducting additional on-board verifications of identification in the wake of the British arrests.
Security funding for passenger rail needs to rise, because the U.S. spends $7 per airline passenger and less than 2 cents per railroad traveler, Johnson said.
Amtrak is in the midst of its annual funding battle, with the U.S. Senate backing $1.4 billion in annual subsidies, about 20 percent more than for the year ending Sept. 30. President George W. Bush’s administration wants to force cost cuts by lowering the subsidy almost 20 percent.
Last year, the Bush Administration zeroed out Amtrak.
Out in Chicagoland, the Tribune reported on August 10 Chicago area train and bus riders were reminded Thursday to report unusual activity, even though city and state officials said the international terror plot posed no immediate threat to the city.
At Chicago Union Station, Amtrak increased security patrols, as it did at major facilities across the nation. Dogs were used to conduct random sweeps of luggage, and police shifts were extended to 12 hours from eight. Amtrak also ramped up its random ticket-verification program, increasing the number of passengers it asks for valid identification on trains to 50 percent from the normal level of 10 percent.
Though there was no immediate threat to mass transit, the Chicago Transit Authority reminded employees to look for unusual activity and made similar announcements to riders. Information about the new aviation-security measures was broadcast to passengers on airport-bound Orange and Blue Line trains.
Farther south, the Galesburg, Ill. Register-Mail informed its readers that Amtrak increased police visibility and extended police tours of duty from eight to 12 hours. Other security measures also have been increased.
Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari told the newspaper while there is no specific threat against Amtrak or other U.S. ground-based transportation, the passenger rail service is complying with the Department of Homeland Security alert level for non-aviation transportation, which remains at yellow.
Magliari said the passenger carrier is using patrols by K-9 detection teams at major stations. Ticket agents are required to ask passenger buying tickets to provide a photo I.D. Using a ticket verification system issued in 2004 by the Transportation Security Administration, 10 percent of Amtrak passengers have been asked since the directive to produce valid ID on board trains and the name on the ticket is compared to the name on the I.D. Thursday, Amtrak raised to 50 percent the percentage of passengers aboard trains who will be asked for ticket verification.
There was no change in the regulations for carry-on baggage.
“Amtrak is more vigorously enforcing its existing policy,” according to the prepared release, which requires all checked and carry-on baggage to be tagged with the owner’s name and address. Amtrak is providing luggage tags to passengers who need them. Random sweeps of both carry-on and checked baggage by K-9 detection teams is continuing.
The last time Amtrak raised its security threat level was on July 7, 2005. The passenger railroad increased its security threat level following terrorist bombings in London’s transit system.
The Boston Globe noted Robert Hass, who was waiting in South Station for a train home to New York, said train rides are “much more relaxing.” He added, “By the time you get to the airport, by the time you get through security, it's just easier to take the train and it's a lot less stressful. You have a better chance of being struck by lightning than being in a terrorist attack.”
The CBS affiliate in Philadelphia, KYW-TV, told its viewers the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) hopes to employ a new device that could close the gap between sniffers and x-rays which are devices currently in use at the airport.
SEPTA says it is the only transit system in the U.S. that has the device. They are also the first in the nation to use that level of technology.
The device is connected to a computer that reads the level of threat proposed in suspicious packages. It can read specific liquid elements inside of packages even before they are mixed to become explosives. It takes about two minutes to complete a scan.
SEPTA paid $300,000 for each both machines.
In London, BBC News reported the EuroStar took more than 15,000 extra bookings from people left stranded by the airport security alert.
The company said it was expecting to carry 34,000 passengers on Friday, which it said was a “significant increase” compared to normal business.
The operator of the high-speed link between London, Paris and Brussels expected 23,000 passengers on Thursday but ended up 24 percent up on normal business. Extra staff helped passengers at London’s Waterloo station and Ashford in Kent.
Meanwhile, more call center operators were needed as the number of inquiries to Eurostar’s Ashford base doubled.
People who had already queued for hours at the airports headed to EuroStar’s Waterloo terminal to join long queues there instead.
Spokesman Simon Montague added, “We were due to carry 23,000 passengers during the course of Thursday. “By lunchtime we had sold another 4,500 tickets, so we are seeing a very big increase in demand.”
An extra 6,000 bookings were made for Friday.
The topic became fodder for bloggers as well.
National Public Radio’s Daniel Zwerdling asked the question, “Is Amtrak Serious About Security?” on August 11.
He wrote, “The more we hear, the worse it sounds. Ten airplanes, at least. Days from doing it. A sophisticated, international conspiracy. Plotters perhaps at large, perhaps in Pakistan. Not many details yet, and no way to verify, but this is what officials are telling us.”
He asked, “Meanwhile, remember all the worry about potential threats to trains? So answer a couple questions for me: How come nobody on Amtrak’s busiest line, from Washington to New York, has ever – ever – asked me or my loved ones to show an ID during our dozens and dozens of trips? Amtrak’s website says, “We regularly conduct random ticket verification checks” as part of their security policy. My web dictionary defines “random” as ‘Having no specific pattern, purpose or objective.’ Hmm.”
His questioning continued.
“Has anyone on Amtrak ever inspected even one piece of your luggage?”
He answered himself by writing, “Ouch.”
Later in the day a respondent wrote, “I am a frequent train traveler from Philadelphia to New Haven. I always have trepidation approaching NYC through the underground tunnels, and also the bridges. I have NEVER been asked to show ID, I have NEVER had my suitcase, carry-on or handbag checked, and I have never seen anyone else being checked. This causes me a great deal of concern, and I would GLADLY arrive at the station two hours ahead to have such security measures taken.
Elayne M. Weiner added, “The trains from D.C. to Boston are always packed with people and for Amtrak to say they are ‘poor’ is pathetic. They charge an arm and a leg for a ride on the Acela, and recently, they weren’t even providing an outlet for your laptop or I-Pod because they were ‘conserving’ electricity.
“Yes, I would like to pay $123 for a one way ride with no electrical outlet. My off-peak coach ride is $59, but I would pay more if I had to so that extra personnel could check our baggage, packages and even ourselves for that matter to ensure our safety. Since the government subsidizes Amtrak, maybe they should take over some of these matters. After all, we train travelers deserve the safety precautions that airline travelers have too.”
Websites of interest:
Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov/