28 Dec 2009 10:54 pm   //   Filed under: Transit, Travel

Why isn’t there a TSA for the trains?

Over the weekend, airport security was stepped up after Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the (mercifully) incompetent underwear terrorist, tried to blow a hole in a Detroit-bound airliner. Most air travelers don’t mind odd new rules and long lines at the TSA checkpoints because they realize there’s a real threat that some nutjob might try to kill innocent people.

Yesterday I traveled from BWI Airport in Maryland to New York City carrying several bags of gifts, including two sharp kitchen knives and a big bottle of delicious Belgian beer. No one asked any questions—because I was on an Amtrak train!

Bags are never searched or screened on the train. Knives? Liquids? Guns? Drugs? Explosives? They’ll never know! No metal detectors, no dogs, no TSA. You can board an Amtrak train without ever showing anyone your ticket or ID. (Conductors check the tickets along the way.)

Why isn’t there a security system? Because Amtrak is an open network. Many of its stations are minimally staffed platforms in the middle of nowhere. Stations are often shared with commuter railroads. If Amtrak stepped up security in the big stations, they’d have to step it up everywhere, and that’s financially impossible. It would be like running an X-Ray machine at every municipal bus stop. Unlike air travel, which is inherently special and scary, train and bus travel is cheap and commonplace. The flexibility of ground transportation is too important to the economy be saddled with expensive, all-reaching security restrictions.

Should that make us feel OK? Why have the U.K., Spain, Israel, India and other countries had horrific transit bombings, while none has happened in the U.S.? There is no reason.

And yet we board our trains and buses as naturally as walking down the street. I guess you can only worry so much.