Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Anonymous travel takes another hit

Rail travel in the U.S. has suffered no terrorist attacks of any note, and even around the world the sort of trains that have drawn terrorist's attention have been commuter trains that regularly carry large numbers of passengers at predictable times and which have the potential to disrupt life throughout major cities if targeted. Given that American inter-city rail travel hasn't popped up on anybody's threat radar, and that the hassle-free anonymity it offers has won some privacy-conscious passengers away from the airlines for the red-ink drenched rail system, what's the logical move for Amtrak to make? Why, to trade away its comparative advantage for airport-style security hassles, of course!

The new procedures draw heavily on measures being used in the New York City subways, Rooney said. That model has been upheld in court challenges, he noted.

Amtrak plans to roll out the new "mobile security teams" first on the Northeast Corridor between Washington and Boston, the railroad's most heavily used route, before expanding them to the rest of the country.

The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates. Officers will randomly pull people out of line and wipe their bags with a special swab that is then put through a machine that detects explosives. If the machine detects anything, officers will open the bag for visual inspection.

Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.

Passengers purchasing tickets from station agents are now being carded, but it's still possible to purchase tickets without showing ID at self-serve kiosks -- for all the good that will do you if you're chosen for a random inspection.

But won't it make us all a bit safer to be treated like Cubans trying to exchange ration cards for a few ounces of meat? Well ... I doubt it. After all, even the most "secure" train with the most harassed passengers has to travel over thousands of miles of unwatched track.

Even before the post-9/11 hysteria, I often preferred to travel the Northeast by bus or rail because of the ability to preserve privacy and to travel without having your belongings pawed by strangers. Even when asked for a name to purchase a ticket, I always gave a fake name -- sometimes preposterously so -- and nobody batted an eyelash.

But nowadays, even travelers on the nation's private bus lines are increasingly subject to security screenings and random searches. The days of purchasing a ticket with cash, using whatever name pleases you and traveling in anonymity are rapidly drawing to a close.

Cars remain an option if you ignore the need for driver's licenses and plates; if you drive you can still pack what you want and go from point A to point B without justifying yourself to the authorities. But how much longer will that happy state of affairs remain the case before we suddenly find ourselves routinely opening our trunks at roadblocks and explaining what business we're on?

Can you even pretend it's still a free country when you can't go from town to town without showing identity papers and letting uniformed goons judge the propriety of the contents of your luggage?

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