[from August 2005 issue]


Four months ago in this space we expressed our deep concerns about our city being in real danger from terrorism, a danger made even more real thanks to the CSX rail line that cuts close to the Pentagon and right through downtown just south of the Mall and within a couple of blocks of the Capitol grounds. (From the Publisher’s Desk, “A Terrorist Target?,” April 2005, page 3.)

We continue to be ill-at-ease regarding whether our city is actually prepared to not only deal with the aftermath but whether there are even truly viable procedures in place to avoid what everyone seems to agree will be the inevitable.

We are not sanguine.

For example, CSX and the feds recently announced with some fanfare that this dangerous cargo rail line would soon be protected by lots of surveillance cameras and better fencing. But no word that dangerous chemicals and other stuff that can blow up would be totally kept off those tracks. Apparently our government is willing to sacrifice all just to help CSX keep its costs down by avoiding the necessity of routing such shipments away from the very nerve center of the nation. To think that cameras and better fences are the sole answer to ensuring true safety is totally beyond the pale. Rail cars with hazardous materials can easily enough be blown up from a modest distance beyond where the cameras are to be mounted and where the fences are installed. Just watch the nightly TV footage from Baghdad.

The actual tempting and easily comprised targets should simply be removed to ensure security from this kind of attack.

But, there’s more to be concerned about.

For example, lately public safety agencies have been encouraging citizens to watch out for “suspicious” packages -- we still have no idea what to look for since apparently bombs can easily be concealed in anything & detonated by remote control with a cell phone. Maybe this kind of watching out will save the day some day; at least Metro seems to think so, and has joined in the chorus. Notwithstanding, however, Metro is clearly totally out of its league in knowing how to respond if someone reports a “suspicious” package, as a recent Washington Post news report revealed about the incident of the unattended backpack blocking a train door at Metro Center and when passengers brought this to the attention of the operator they were told to just shove it inside the car so that he could close the doors allowing the train to proceed.

That widely reported security goof seemed to get Metro’s attention and they announced that training programs would be developed. Nice to know, but one has to wonder why it is that Metro simply excused that lapse of common sense by its train operator to a lack of a proper, on-going formal training program. One would hope that employees assigned to critical jobs like operating mass transit trains and busses would already come to the job equipped with some actual intelligence.

It boggles our mind that it apparently never occurred to that train operator that an abandoned backpack blocking the door closing of a subway train car at a critical transfer station, in this case the system’s hub at Metro Center, in the nation’s capital might be something to wonder about. Anyone who reads a newspaper or watches TV news or even downs a few with the guys in the neighborhood bar has got to know that something of that nature might be bad.

Interestingly, even though there was a letter to the editor in the Post about a week before the highly publicized Metro Center incident in which the writer detailed a truly egregious apparent lapse of Metro employee judgment regarding abandoned cartons sitting in full view of the station attendant, we looked in vain for any acknowledgement that Metro related that security failure to the one reported so extensively.

For our readers who may not have read the letter to the editor in question, we will summarize her report: As she was entering the Dunn Loring station on the way to work she spied some seemingly abandoned cartons piled up next to the bank of farecard machines. Rather than immediately racing through the fare gate to catch a train she did her civic duty and pointed the suspicious pile out to the station attendant (who apparently hadn’t wondered about those cartons on his own). He said he would have it taken care of. But when she returned eight hours later the cartons were still there and just then she saw a transit officer coming in to check them out and when she asked when did he get the call to come by, assuming that the transit police had been very slow on the uptake from the time of her report, the officer informed her that they had just gotten the call a little while before.

We can only surmise that the morning station attendant just ignored the whole thing and that it was the evening shift attendant who exercised some initiative. Now, we may be a little off on the fine points of the story -- it’s been awhile since we read that letter -- but the overall outline is the real deal and points to the big question of just what kind of drones are we relying on to help ensure our safety? Failures like the ones discussed here cannot be excused by the fact that, gosh, there are no regular training programs in place; if the people on the front lines were truly competent they wouldn’t need training to understand that things like an unattended pile of cartons in a mass transit station might just be something that ought to require at least a phone call to the security department!