Wednesday, June 15, 2011

On Duty and On Amtrak

I just took a ride between New York City's Pennsylvania Station and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania on always beleaguered Amtrak, the U.S. national passenger railroad system, and saw some notable changes since my last time on the rails a year ago.

Most of those changes have to do with security - namely, there is a lot more of it, especfially those aspects of security that are designed to be visible. While I waited for the evening departure of my train below the low roof of busy Penn Station, I saw a number of Amtrak Police on duty as well as fatigue-clad regular soldiers with sidearms strapped to their thighs. Mounted video screens played a repeating loop of interviews with dog handlers whose charges sniff out possible explosives on the trains and in the stations. Travelers are now told they must carry photo identification and be prepared to show it, though no one in the station or on the train asked to see mine. Travelers were also told to be ready to have their luggage inspected, though this didn't happen in my carriage, either.

All this, of course, has come about because of recovered documents in the Pakistan lair of the late Osama bin Laden that mentioned targeting U.S. trains for future terror attacks. The ramped-up security inches American train travel a little closer to the frustrating security maze of American airports, muting one of rail's advantages for consumers. But with the present air of menace, one can hardly blame Amtrak for heightening scrutiny.

Looking around at the fast-food joints and relatively murky environs of New York's major long-distance rail station - Grand Central Station handles significant commuter traffic - I grew nostalgic for something that hasn't happened yet, and may not happen: The conversion of the magnificent post office right nearby into the 'new' Penn Station, as proposed years ago by the late U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynahan. Even this wouldn't entirely make up for the destruction, in the early 1960s, of the original Penn Station, which rivaled Grand Central in grandeur. But it would bolster America's struggling rail system - once arguably the finest in the world.

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