Grant Funds Should Target Highest Priority Rail Vulnerabilities

By Carlton Purvis

Failure to use grant money to fix their most vulnerable areas leaves railway systems open to terrorist attacks, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Office of the Inspector General said in a recent report.

Since 2005, DHS has provided one billion dollars in grants to Amtrak and passenger rail transit agencies to beef up protection for railway passengers and infrastructure. (Only $97 million actually went directly to Amtrak; the rest went to the agencies.) But because of lack of oversight, the grant money may not have gone to the most important security gaps. DHS blames TSA for not requiring Amtrak to develop a plan to address its highest ranking vulnerabilities and approving Amtrak requests to fund lower risk ones. As a result, “some rail stations and the traveling public may be at a greater risk to a potential terrorist attack.”

Amtrak had in the past created a list and a general strategy to fix gaps at its top 16 stations -a GAO report even outlined suggestions for them, but the assessment was overly broad and never defined specific mitigation efforts, including cost estimates, timeframes. It also did not designate what efforts would become top priorities. But then again, the grant never required them too. The report notes that the grants permitted Amtrak to use funds for projects that may not be the highest priority but are easier to complete.

In one example, inspectors said the air conditioning system was vulnerable at a railway station. But because the Amtrak station’s landlord wouldn’t let the system be modified, the funds were used to upgrade a close-circuit TV system instead.

At four high-risk railway stations visited by DHS, the Inspector General’s Office found that no actions had been taken to fix problems that were pointed out as early as 2006. A page worth of redacted material diagrams vulnerabilities “that a terrorist could access” and DHS’s 2006 recommendations on how to fix them.

In response to the report, TSA agreed to increase oversight of the process and require Amtrak to develop a formal security plan. DHS will continue to review vulnerabilities with Amtrak each grant cycle to help keep them on track.

There were positive findings in the report as well, such as that "Grant recipients have demonstrated coordination activities to ensure economical use of grant funds." It's also worth noting that only a small percentage of funds allocated have been spent, according to this IG report. The cause for the delays has to do with the bureaucracy, but whatever the cause, the bottom line is that most of the money has yet to be spent, thus leaving open the possibility that it will be directed toward addressing the concerns raised in this report.

photo by amtrak_russ  from flickr


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