By Lyndsey Layton and Steven Ginsberg
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 8, 2005
Reverberations from the London bombings were felt almost immediately among transit systems in Washington and across the country yesterday as officials tried to fortify railroads, buses and trolleys that experts agree are vulnerable to attack by their very nature.
Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff raised the threat level from yellow, or elevated, to orange, or high, just for mass transit systems. All other segments of the country remain at yellow, he said. It was the first time the threat level had been raised in nearly a year.
In Washington, the most security conscious of U.S. cities, Metro officials woke before dawn to the news from London and quickly stepped up security. "We didn't wait for the code to go to orange," spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said. "We were already there."
Together, hundreds of police from local, federal and regional agencies began inspecting buses and rail yards and patrolling stations, subway trains and commuter rail cars.
Police boats plied the Potomac River, looking for explosives tucked under bridges that carry Virginia Railway Express trains. Officers with MP5 submachine guns slung across their chests walked onto trains at the L'Enfant Plaza Metro station. Bomb-sniffing dogs climbed aboard some Metrobuses before they rolled onto their routes.
Officials said they received no threats to the Washington region but added that they were not taking chances. "We can't take anything for granted," Charles H. Ramsey, chief of the D.C. police, said. "We didn't have any direct threats against London, either."
Still, the police presence was inconsistent along the 106-mile Metro system as well as hundreds of miles of bus routes, the 90 miles of rail that carry VRE and 187 miles of track traveled by MARC trains.
In the morning, at the Farragut North Metro stop, police patrolled the platform and station while trains disgorged thousands of riders. Ramon Zertuche said he was reassured by the display of force, although he doubted it could prevent an attack. "It kind of gives you a naive sense of security," he said as he stood on the platform. "I'm just wondering what they can do."
One stop away at the busy Dupont Circle Station, the scene was mundane: A woman in heels sprinted down the escalator to catch a train, and another woman squirmed into a car packed with sweat-soaked riders as the doors closed on her bag. Others listened to their iPods and flipped through the morning papers. There were yawns aplenty. No uniformed police were visible.
Transit Police Chief Polly Hanson said officers cannot be in all stations at all times. "I don't know that it's realistic to have police officers at every station," she said.
Riders expressed a range of sentiment, from nervous to nonchalant.
Bonnie Olachea, 50, a court reporter who lives in Rockville and works in the District, unsuccessfully tried to change her schedule to avoid riding Metro. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, Olachea virtually stopped working downtown for a year. Yesterday's attack stirred similar anxieties. But her supervisor could not find a replacement, so Olachea steeled herself for the Metro.
Robert Fischer, 53, a registered nurse who rides the Red Line, was more relaxed. "If it's my time, it's my time," he said with a shrug.
Security concerns did not affect ridership. Officials at Metro, VRE and MARC said ridership was typical for a weekday.
Hanson said transit police were aided by other agencies, including some from suburban jurisdictions, but she did not know how many additional officers had been deployed or how long they will be assisting.
U.S. Capitol Police searched dozens of Metrobuses, tour buses and other vehicles on routes along Independence Avenue near the Capitol during the afternoon rush hour yesterday. Officers boarded the buses and walked the aisles, looking for anything suspicious. Police dogs sniffed the doors and steps of the buses.
Mass transit is an "ideal target" for terrorists determined to kill, said Brian M. Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center.
"First, it's public, so there's ease of access," he said. "Second, these are congregations of strangers that guarantees attackers anonymity. And third, it's concentrations of people in a contained environment, and that enhances the effects of explosives as well as unconventional weapons. It guarantees them high body counts."
Dispatching police with guns and dogs to stations may deter an attack, but ultimately it pushes the risk elsewhere in a transit system, Jenkins said. "To say we're going to seal it off against terrorism cannot be done," he said.
Metro Chief Executive Richard A. White said he awoke about 5 a.m. and got a call from his chief operating officer for rail. "You live with that fear every day," White said. "You wake up wondering when or where that's going to happen. Transit systems are targets of choice for terrorists."
The public transit industry argued yesterday for more security funding. A 2004 survey by the American Public Transportation Association found that the nation needs to invest $6 billion to meet security needs on transit systems.
Metro and New York City's subway system have received more in federal security grants than other transit systems across the nation. Metro has gotten $57 million in federal grants, spending much of it on training, canine teams, cameras and such equipment as chemical sensors for half of the underground stations.
At L'Enfant Plaza, Metro officers displayed their submachine guns for a phalanx of television crews from around the world. They walked through the station, sweat pouring onto their backs from beneath their bulletproof vests.
One stepped to the side to check a trash can. Another tried the knob on a door to make sure it was locked. A third looked for anything unusual near the fareboxes. They fanned out when they reached the mezzanine, some taking position next to escalators, others staring down at passengers and the rest sweeping the platform. "We're looking for stuff out of the ordinary here," said Sgt. Pete Sapulveda.
Gail Vinyard, who lives near Atlanta and was on her first trip to Washington, was taken aback. "It's my first time seeing guys with automatic machine guns," she said. "It's a little disconcerting."
Vinyard and her husband, Terry, said the threat of danger was not severe enough to chase them off Metro, but they were sufficiently spooked that they didn't tell their 15-year-old son, Jake, about the London attacks before boarding.
Jake said the machine guns gave it away.
Additional police were on patrol at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium, where the Nationals played yesterday afternoon, and at MCI Center, where the Mystics were competing last night.
At Stadium-Armory Station, Dick Fuchs, 71, headed to the Nationals game with his two grandsons. "There are always concerns, but you have to trust in the system," said Fuchs, visiting from Twin Falls, Idaho. "I have a chance to go to a game. This isn't going to stop me."
Staff writers Cameron W. Barr, Fulvio Cativo, Michael Alison Chandler, D'Vera Cohn, Nia-Malika Henderson, Spencer S. Hsu, Michael Laris, Jennifer Lenhart, Michael D. Shear, Mary Beth Sheridan, Eric M. Weiss and Del Quentin Wilber contributed to this report.