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    PATH station to test bomb-detection plan

Wednesday, January 25, 2006 BY RON MARSICO Star-Ledger Staff

A temporary airport-like security system to detect explosives will be set up next month at the Exchange Place PATH station in Jersey City as the first phase of a federal test program designed to beef up rail safety across the country, officials said yesterday.

Between Feb. 6 and March 1, the roughly 15,000 passengers who use the station each day will encounter X-ray baggage machines, walk-through metal-detectors and other screening devices.

Unlike the security systems at airports, the Rail Security Project will not require passengers to empty their pockets, turn off their laptops or take off their shoes when being screened. If alarms sound, bags may be swiped to check them electronically for explosive residue and passengers may be subjected to a follow-up search with a hand-held wand, officials said. "We definitely need to look into ways to increase the security of our rail system," said Larry Orluskie, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

Orluskie said the fledgling initiative is not designed to test technological devices. "This is a search for data and collection of information," he said. Screeners at Exchange Place will be private contract employees from San Francisco International Airport who will be on loan from the U.S. Transportation Security Administration.

From March 1 to Sept. 30, the research gleaned at Exchange Place will be used to design and test specific technologies and systems during phase two of the program, which will be launched at locations yet to be announced, officials said.

The Department of Homeland Security will oversee the initiative with assistance from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, which operates the PATH system. Ultimately, federal security officials hope to use their research to test an array of devices that can screen people for explosives from a distance, including infrared technology and video surveillance. "DHS approached us about using our facility for the program and we're certainly open to helping test any new technologies that will hopefully increase security on our system," said Marc La Vorgna, a Port Authority spokesman.

La Vorgna said the screening will add about "one minute" to passengers' travel times.

Bolstering rail security has gained increased urgency after terrorists bombed Madrid's train system in March 2004 and London's subway in July 2005. Unlike airport checkpoints, which are in contained areas, screening rail and bus travelers effectively and efficiently is considered far more difficult because of the myriad stations, rapid timetables and crush of passengers at peak rush hour travel times.

Random inspections of passengers' bags in the New York City subways last year proved controversial. The American Civil Liberties Union challenged the action, but lost in court and is appealing.

Travelers who do not want to be screened can gain access to the trains via an elevator and entryway for the disabled before passing through the turnstiles, said Peter Bengtson, a contract spokesman for the Rail Security Project. "Once they enter the station and the turnstiles, it's not voluntary," Bengtson said.

During peak periods, about 4,000 passengers an hour use Exchange Place, which provides a direct link to the World Trade Center station in Lower Manhattan. That number dwindles to some 400 passengers at the slowest times.

Bengtson said officials will try to maintain passenger flow. At certain times, screeners will focus only on passengers; at other times, only baggage will be screened. Sometimes, both will be checked, he said. "I think everybody's expectation is that the technology that exists needs to evolve," he said.

Ron Marsico covers the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey. He can be reached at or (973) 392-7860.

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