U.S. rail tunnels pose dilemma in fight against terrorism

Associated Press Writer

WASHINGTON- Experts are struggling to find a solution to the potential danger from the antiquated network of rail tunnels in the United States as the terrorist bombings on London's subway system focus attention on rail security.

Many tunnels, some of which are at least a century old, are basically unchanged from the time they were dug. They are poorly ventilated and escape routes tend to be narrow and difficult.

"We're faced with how to best prevent a nefarious incident from happening, but what if one does happen?" said John Tolman, spokesman for the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen. "What's the best escape route? God forbid there was a fire underneath, what do you do?"

Older tunnels tend to be deep and snug. Brian Jenkins, a counterterrorism expert with the think tank Rand Corp. said that makes an explosion even deadlier.

"The blast has nowhere to go. It'll run back and forth through the carriages and cause the greatest number of casualties," Jenkins said.

It also makes it harder for emergency workers to get through wreckage to put out the flames and help victims.

In London on July 7, two bombs exploded in shallow tunnels. One blew up in a deep tunnel 20 meters (70 feet) below the street on the Piccadilly Line near King's Cross. Twenty-one people died in that tunnel, three times more than in either of the others.

Rail tunnels also are important conduits of commerce and for telecommunications cables. For instance, the Stevens Pass tunnel in the Cascade Mountains is the gateway for virtually all rail freight from the Port of Seattle to Chicago.

Baltimore has firsthand experience with a train tunnel fire.

In 2001, a freight train accident inside a 130-year-old tunnel caused a fire and flood that largely shut down the city and disrupted rail service for days from Washington, D.C., to Boston. Telecommunication systems along the East Coast were interrupted for weeks.

The United States has nearly 900 miles (1,450 kilometers) of transit tunnels, according to the American Public Transit Association.

The government does not have an inventory of rail tunnels that freight and passenger trains share. That makes it impossible to calculate the costs involved in upgrading them all to ensure speedier evacuations and better access for emergency crews.

Rail company Amtrak is spending US$480 million (euro400 million) on safety improvements for tunnels linking Manhattan with New Jersey and Long Island.

Steven Alleman, Amtrak's program director for fire and life safety in New York, said the work includes new ventilation systems, a new stairway system, an alternative power source for trains and water pipes to put out fires.

Amtrak also plans upgrades for a tunnel that runs under Baltimore and one that runs under the Supreme Court behind the Capitol.

Dan Prieto, a homeland security expert at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, said the Homeland Security Department should determine which tunnels are the most vital and vulnerable so scarce resources can be allocated properly.

"States and locals are not in a position to determine the national strategic value of their local assets," Prieto said.

Prieto estimates that only about US$300 million (euro250 million) in federal money has been budgeted to upgrade railway infrastructure since the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.


On the Net:

Transportation Security Administration: http://www.tsa.gov

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