Transportation officials are planning a number of security upgrades along Los Angeles County’s network of rail lines over the next year, including a chemical-detection system and scores of new video surveillance cameras.
The improvements were planned before U.S. officials announced they had found evidence that Osama bin Laden was planning some type of attack on U.S. rail systems. But officials said the roughly $10-million worth of safety upgrades comes at an opportune moment.
“Our timing’s perfect, it’s fortuitous,” said Don Knabe, Metropolitan Transit Authority Board Chair and Los Angeles County Supervisor.
In response to Bin Laden’s killing and discovery of rail attack plans, Knabe said Friday that Metro was responding by elevating security and asking the public to be vigilant.
Although some media organizations said the plans found in Bin Laden’s compound specifically mentioned Los Angeles, Knabe said officials were not aware of any specific threats to the area’s rail network.
“There’s nothing imminent here in L.A.,” he said.
Bin Laden’s rail plot was merely “aspirational,” according to a U.S. official who spoke to The Times on condition of anonymity because of the information’s sensitivity. The threat was the first information publicized from the trove of documents, computers, hard drives, flash drives, DVDs and other material U.S. commandos seized after killing Bin Laden in his Pakistan compound on Monday.
Los Angeles-area security officials have been prepared, said Lt. Matthew Rodriguez of the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department, which oversees security for Metro.
“This isn’t a surprise to us,” Rodriguez said. “This is something we’ve been prepared for, for many years.”
Metro has been criticized in the past for slow response to security issues in rail stations. In 2007, a homeless man spilled mercury on a platform at the Pershing Square station, and Metro waited eight hours after being told of the spill before cleaning it up and clearing the station. At least four riders touched or stepped on the mercury and the incident exposed that many MTA workers were not trained on how to deal with hazardous materials.
Security measures have been scaled back in recent years as Metro faced budget shortfalls and large operating deficits. Officials said there was money available in the new budget for some enhancements.
Metro plans to spend $450,000 on speedy fiber optic connections, $100,000 for their closed-circuit television system and $609,000 to centralize Metro’s rail and bus operation centers. Metro plans to spend $399,000 for an early-warning system that could detect chemical weapons.
That will add to other post-9/11 security measures, which include increases in uniformed and plain-clothes officers and 14 bomb-sniffing dogs. At least 10 fixed cameras were installed on each subway train after the attack and Metro added platform cameras that tilt, pan and zoom.
Brian Jenkins of the San Jose-based Mineta Transportation Institute said train stations are among the most vulnerable sites for a terrorist attack.
“It’s not unusual at all,” he said of Bin Laden’s plans. “We know that the attacking terrorists are obsessed with attacking airliners. At the same time they really focus heavily on surface transportation. This is nothing new. We saw these major … terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London in 2005 and Mumbai in 2006. Attacking surface transportation is really their killing field.”
Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris of UCLA’s Institute of Transportation Studies said part of the dynamic was that most of the attention in the U.S. seems to be focused on attacks on airplanes.
“Now that everybody has turned their attentions to the airlines, the rail lines are probably the most vulnerable part of the transportation system,” she said.
Most rail systems are hesitant to create the same security environment as airports because part of the attraction of rail is that you don’t have to take your shoes off, Loukaitou-Sideris said.
She and several colleagues published a paper on transit security in the wake of the Madrid bombings that argued that the U.S. was behind many European cities in their approach to security on surface transportation systems.
“The mandate of security unfortunately cannot happen without more funding and also some public information campaigns telling passengers to become more vigilant,” she said. “The tradeoff with that is you make people worried.”
At Union Station on Friday, many passengers said they felt safe riding the rails.
Danny Olivas, 30, takes the Gold Line to the Red Line to the Blue Line to his job as a forklift operator and said he feels safe aboard the trains and at each station.
“I always see the police with their dogs,” he said. “They check the trains at Union Station before they depart and anybody boards. There’s cameras all over. There’s cameras on the trains and cameras on the decks.”
But 43-year-old Mickey Turner of South L.A. wasn’t convinced she was safe on Metro’s rails. Before taking the 740 bus home she took the Purple Line to Union Station and said she was a bit nervous.
“I’m scared they’re trying to blow up the trains or something,” she said. “I don’t know, maybe I’m being paranoid.”