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Calif. collision highlights terror risk to US rails

Security for tracks called 'superficial'

LOS ANGELES -- In the first moments after a commuter train plowed into a sport utility vehicle parked on the tracks, some feared that it was a terrorist act. The truth, that the deadly wreck was caused by a man bent on suicide, was reassuring and chilling.

Chilling, because the crash illustrated how vulnerable the nation's passenger trains are.

Security and railroad specialists worry that the nation's 140,000 miles of track are extremely susceptible to sabotage, and say there is not much that can be done to protect the rails because the network is so vast and because submerging or enclosing tracks would be too expensive.

Track security is "basically superficial," said David Heyman, director of the homeland security program at Center for Strategic & International Studies, a think tank in Washington, D.C. "Anyone who's determined can get to the tracks."

New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, Miami, and other major US cities have commuter railroads that accounted for 405 million passenger trips in 2003, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Amtrak accounted for an additional 24.6 million trips.

The weakest links are the nearly 250,000 junctions where roads cross the tracks, including nearly 8,000 spots in California. They are unprotected except for easily eluded crossing bars.

"I can think of a lot of different scenarios where they could wreak havoc and create major disasters," said Union Pacific engineer Timothy L. Smith, state legislative chairman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "There's absolutely no doubt."

On Wednesday, authorities in suburban Glendale confronted a dramatic scenario when a man left his Jeep Cherokee on the tracks and jumped out in time to see two commuter trains collide. Eleven people were killed and nearly 200 injured in the nation's deadliest rail crash in six years.

Investigators set up a counterterrorism command post to look into the possibility that it was a terrorist act, but they quickly dismissed the notion.

Authorities said the SUV driver, Juan Manuel Alvarez, had reached the tracks through a street-level highway crossing, drove parallel to the tracks, and turned onto them.

While rail security has become a greater concern after the deadly bombings last year in Madrid, the nation's vast stretches of rail defy constant supervision. That was clear in 1995, when saboteurs pulled up the spikes along a stretch of rail in the Arizona desert, sending an Amtrak train into a dry streambed. One person was killed.

Glendale Mayor Bob Yousefian said he and other Southern California officials have pressed the US government for years to provide money to help secure Metrolink's tracks by building tunnels or bridges where rail lines intersect with roads.

But building tunnels or bridges cost $9 million to $100 million per crossing, said Warren Flatau, spokesman for the Federal Railroad Administration.

Fewer than half of Metrolink's nearly 800 crossings use tunnels or overpasses, Metrolink spokesman Francisco Oaxaca said. Refitting all crossings would cost billions, a prohibitive amount, he said.

"What are the feasible solutions? There are plenty of pie-in-the-sky solutions," Oaxaca said. "We could create a 100-percent underground railroad, but realistically that's not going to happen."

The crash Wednesday also drew attention to the practice of using locomotives at the rear of the train, to push it instead of pull it. To save time, commuter railroads such as Metrolink do not switch engines around when a commuter train reverses direction.

Smith said putting a passenger cab at the front makes a train more likely to derail instead of sweeping obstacles aside. Also, the force of a powerful engine in the back can cause a train to buckle violently in an accident, he said.

Flatau said there is no evidence that a locomotive in the rear is more dangerous.

"It's a method that's been in use for many years, both here and in Europe," Oaxaca said.

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