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State Of The Union

A series of recent sexual assaults have exposed the vulnerability of L.A.’s Union Station to terrorist attack.

September 23, 2004

By Chip Jacobs

When a 16-year-old girl was raped in a parking lot stairwell at downtown’s Union Station in July, authorities cautioned that it was only a violent blip in an otherwise safe area. A heinous crime, but an anomaly. When another sexual assault occurred there a week later, it became clear this was about more than crime. This was a matter of national security.

If a sexual predator could repeatedly slip behind unlocked doors near the heart of Los Angeles’ main rail terminus to commit his deed, what is to stop a well-trained terrorist laden with explosives or chemicals from taking out hundreds or more in a dense passenger area? It is a scenario officials are reluctant to discuss publicly for fear of tipping off carnage-minded extremists, but one not far from the public imagination, especially after Al Qaeda operatives used cell phone-rigged bombs to attack Madrid commuter trains in March.

All this matters because as Union Station goes, so goes L.A.’s mass transit. An estimated 30,000 people traverse the hub daily on their way to trains, buses, and rail lines. Ever since Al Qaeda hijackers slammed three hijacked jetliners into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon, counter-terrorist efforts have focused on preventing a repeat incident. Fortifying security at train depots and along rail corridors has been trickier, and L.A.’s Union Station has peculiarities that make it even harder.

The 65-year-old Spanish-style building just east of City Hall is one of the region’s marquee structures. Catellus Development Corp., the real estate firm spun off from the Santa Fe Railroad empire, owns it and has refurbished it. Walk around the station’s original great hall and you’ll notice adobe tile, throwback leather chairs, car-sized chandeliers and other features of the Fedora Age. What you won’t see, however, are high-tech surveillance cameras there or in the main hallway leading to the Red Line subway, Metrolink commuter trains, the Pasadena-to-Los Angeles Gold Line, and Amtrak trains. Neither will you see waves of armed police or metal detectors. Posted signs remind only that loitering is illegal. There’s nothing about random searches.

Rail terminals by design are free-flowing spaces. Headways between trains are relatively short, and the assumption is that riders paying a few bucks to travel a minor distance wouldn’t tolerate the kind of screening typical for airports nowadays. The question is what’s reasonable. Though Catellus has barriers at the station’s arched entryway and unarmed guards with walkie-talkies, some say it’s not enough. Efforts by law enforcement to get the company to install closed-circuit security cameras in the space it controls have been rebuffed, multiple sources told CityBeat. Catellus’s reluctance apparently stems from the high price of retrofitting in compliance with national historic preservation standards.

“I’m frustrated,” said Frank Roberts, board chairman of the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority. “We need to get a handle on surveillance. Anybody can walk in and about. It’s the complexity and nature of the association with Catellus and other folks.”

“We’ve suggested putting in cameras and they said they can’t do it,” added another MTA official. “They say they’ve put [private] security in there and they have the LAPD.”

Catellus executives declined repeated attempts to comment for this story.

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department patrols MTA’s rail and bus grid under a $50-million-a-year contract. The agency won the rights after a bruising competition with the Los Angeles Police Department. There’s certainly no shortage of people on the lookout at Union Station. Besides the Sheriff’s Department, there’s Amtrak security, deputies assigned to Metrolink, and private guards employed by MTA, Catellus and the Metropolitan Water District; the MWD’s headquarters sit across a courtyard from the station. The LAPD has a role. So does the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security.

Capt. Dan Finkelstein, who runs the Sheriff’s Transit Bureau, said to date there have been no terrorist arrests or activities detected at the grand dame depot. Finkelstein said turf battles aren’t an issue, either, especially since the March Madrid bombings put everyone on a heightened state of alert.

“There is a mixture of manpower, animals, and technology to make the environment as safe as possible with the resources we have,” Finkelstein said. “Certainly more [federal] money would be a good thing, but from what I’m hearing from other transit agencies across the country I can’t complain. I’m pretty confident we have the resources to handle these things.”

Finkelstein would not disclose how many of the 437 people in the transit bureau are assigned to Union Station, but said a dedicated group of uniformed and undercover officers patrol it. The department, he added, has several gun- and bomb-sniffing dogs with “more on the way.” A handful of passengers have tossed drugs overboard when they’ve seen the dogs approach.

Last May, the MTA board voted to spend $4.7 million to add 60 more fare inspectors to the system, which does not use turnstiles to collect tickets. (There are now 110 total inspectors.) The main reason was to free up deputies for more crime prevention and surveillance. The fare evasion rate was just 2.24 percent last year, barely denting the more than $223 million in rail and bus fares shelled out by riders, according to MTA figures.

Zealous about secrecy, transit and Sheriff officials would not spell out everything they’re doing. Since February, Sheriff deputies have been seen riding Segway scooters to bolster their visibility and zip around faster. Nonetheless, there is a patchwork feel to security. Some rail platforms such as the Gold Line have cameras. Others don’t. One source said he’s seen officers from different agencies squabble about responsibilities.

No precaution stopped the first rape, or the attempted second one exactly a week later in the same spot: the second level stairwell of the MTA’s $300-million headquarters building, which is at the south end of the so-called Gateway property. A suspect is in custody. Because of the media coverage, another woman came forward and said she’d been attacked on the Gold Line in February. A fourth victim claimed to have been battered on the Red Line in July.

“One person committed four sexual assaults, and if you take him out of the equation, compared with the hundreds of thousands of people traveling safely, the ´´ odds are pretty darn small of something happening to your mother or daughter,” Finkelstein said.

Playing the odds, though, has some upset. Longtime transit gadfly John Walsh believes the MTA board has been so gung-ho to build politically rewarding rail systems it’s neglected post-9/11 security at Union Station. He said there aren’t enough dogs, too few cameras and antiquated equipment.

“What MTA should do is form a peer review panel of experts to give them a ballpark figure on how many tens of millions it would take to raise the security level to average,” said Walsh. “If it means delaying construction of a new project, so be it. The only reason there’s a gun dog [now] was that a woman got raped. How much more blood has to be spilled before we get a bomb- and chemical-sniffing dog?”

~ Sitting Duck ~

The Madrid train bombings drove home the possibility it could happen here. Finkelstein said a working group comprised of the different security entities at Union Station now meets regularly. They run drills, including one last week that emptied out the MTA headquarters. They also conduct “table-top” exercises to think up attack scenarios.

It’s unclear whether the terminal is on the list of 100 top local terrorist targets, as Los Angeles International Airport and some downtown skyscrapers are, because the list has not been made public. But trains are clearly a target: Last month, a U.S. citizen and Pakistani national were arrested in what police suspect was a thwarted plot to blow up a Manhattan subway station. Three days later, a suicide bomber tied to Chechen separatists blew herself up outside a Moscow subway station, killing 10. Terrorists and insurgents have long regarded rail lines as a good target because they are relatively easy pickings, according to a study recently presented to Congress by the Rand Corp., a Santa Monica think tank. Between 1998 and 2003, there were 181 attacks on them from India to South America.

“Passenger rail facilities present potentially inviting targets for terrorists for a variety of reasons,” the report said. “They are easily penetrated and may have high concentrations of people … . Casualties can be inflicted with a backpack-sized bomb. This is a substantially lower logistical burden than the one faced by the terrorists who committed the September 11 attacks. In addition, terrorists likely perceive psychological benefits to attacking transportation networks.”

Until the Madrid incident, the world’s most infamous terrorist train attack occurred in the Tokyo subway in 1995. A doomsday cult there released sarin gas that killed a dozen people and made 5,000 ill.

~ Short-Changed ~

Union Station’s vulnerability was not lost on Los Angeles Mayor Jim Hahn. In October 2001, he successfully pushed through the MTA board a motion for a security reassessment there. A month later, the panel was briefed about it in closed session.

Not long afterward, the Federal Transportation Administration began analyzing safeguards at the nation’s 50 largest passenger-rail depots. This report is due out next month but won’t be made public because of its sensitive nature, a FTA spokesperson said. The 9/11 Commission was so concerned about possible attacks on subways, trucks, and ships that it issued a 20-page addendum to its main report. Checking passenger names against terrorist watch-lists was one recommendation.

“When the feds came back, they were very impressed” with the changes at Union Station since 9/11,” said Paul Lennon, the MTA’s director of intelligence and emergency preparedness. “There are a lot of enhancements that could be added, but under the circumstances we’ve done what we can. There is a huge presence of security people.”

Some of these upgrades have been financed by a $4.6 million grant from Homeland Security. MTA officials are studying new technologies, including a closed-circuit television system inside rail cars that would beam real-time images to a control center.

Yet despite being the nation’s second biggest city, Los Angeles has received comparatively little federal rail security money, according to the American Public Transportation Association. New York City has secured about $28 million; Chicago took $5.1 million. Southeastern Pennsylvania received $3.4 million.

Public-transit advocates have complained that federal money spent on airline safety since 9/11 has come at the expense of bus and rail, which carries 16 times more people daily than air travel. They claim to need $6 billion, well short of the $3.5 billion the House of Representatives has proposed spending on mass-transit security over three years.

“We know that Los Angeles remains a target for terrorists, and that’s why we are working to convince Washington that L.A. needs its fair share of Homeland Security Funding,” Hahn said in a statement prepared for this story. “Receiving the funds with which we are entitled to will go a long way toward securing key sites in L.A. like Union Station.”

At the Metropolitan Water District, vigilance is a serious business. Cameras ring their property. Enter the lobby and a guard watches you. The MWD has spent $20 million on fencing, cameras, sensors and other precautions system-wide since the attacks, said Jill Wicke, the district’s manager of water system operations. At their headquarters, underground parking has been restricted and concrete barriers have been installed, among other moves.

“The whole (Union Station) area is a public facility and there are constraints associated with the security of public spaces,” Wicke said. “People have free access to come and go, and that complicates things. If something affects the property that everyone else needs to know about, we’ll call the Sheriffs and LAPD.”

Amtrak has also made changes, limiting passenger bags and requiring identification to buy a ticket.

Tom Rubin, a transit consultant and former chief financial officer for one of MTA’s predecessor agencies, said Union Station has a way to go before it is safe.

“You need somebody in charge, and it starts at the edge of the property,” Rubin said. “What we are primarily concerned about is prevention. There should be an overall plan and coordination among the agencies. One of the key things should be a closed circuit television [system] because it’s very effective. It’s my understanding there is closed circuit television for the Red and Gold Lines, but not for Union Station.”

Finkelstein reiterated that the Sheriffs are the ones in charge. He declined discussing surveillance specifics. A spokesman for County Supervisor and MTA board member Mike Antonovich said his office is looking into the issues raised by CityBeat.

Catellus, which is based in San Francisco, is no stranger to L.A. politics. The firm contributed $29,000 to the anti-San Fernando Valley secession movement spearheaded by Hahn. It’s also given about $19,000 to various council members and candidates since 1998, records show.
A Hahn spokesperson called it “totally illogical” to believe the anti-secession funds influenced policy, noting that LAPD is not the lead agency in charge at Union Station.

A nearly identical version of this story appeared in L.A. CityBeat. Copyright Chip Jacobs