Cantwell urges TSA to help close railway security gaps

By:  Liz Rocca, komonews.com
SEATTLE -- An undercover Problem Solvers investigation into rail security has prompted a response from Capitol Hill.

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., is demanding answers about the investigation's findings -- trains left unguarded, and neighborhoods put at risk.

The Transportation Security Administration sidestepped KOMO's questions only to see its chief land in the hot seat on Wednesday. During a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee meeting on Wednesday, Cantwell fired questions at John Pistole, head of the TSA.

"I don't know if you've read or seen about this, but basically a train (was) left idle but running for six hours, I guess unattended," Cantwell said.

"I know a little bit about the situation. It's basically what I've read," Pistole said.

But Pistole already knew the Problem Solvers were able to board running and unattended trains all across Washington state, some just miles from major oil refineries. The investigation found trains hauling dangerous chemicals were left unguarded with the key inside.

KOMO News turned over the findings to the Federal Railroad Administration, including the locations of these trains, and the oversight agency is now investigating. But when KOMO News asked TSA weeks ago to review the undercover video captured during the investigation, the agency declined.

So the Problem Solvers asked Cantwell to get involved, and press TSA to do more about the uncovered safety gaps. Now, the TSA is changing its tune.

"What can TSA do to work with the Federal Railroad Administration to make sure that there aren't these kinds of gaps in security in the system?" Cantwell asked.

"We will work with the FRA to make sure these types of situations do not repeat," Pistole said.

"So you do think it's a problem?" asked Cantwell.

"I think it's an issue that needs to be addressed both from a safety and security perspective, yes," said Pistole.

But current regulations limit the agency's reach. A TSA official, who asked to remain anonymous, said the agency has no authority over these unlocked, unguarded running trains because they weren't carrying toxic inhalants and they weren't found within TSA's jurisdiction -- the high-threat urban area of Seattle and 15 miles beyond.

"I think Tacoma, which is right here, would take it kind of personally that they were left out of a high-threat urban area," said Cantwell, pointing to a map.

After the KOMO News investigation, Cantwell is now pressing for a review of TSA's high-threat map in Washington state to put more communities within its reach, including Spokane. KOMO News found a train idling, unguarded for six hours, with the key inside as the locomotive sat just 30 miles outside the city that holds nearly a half million people.

"There's a lot of rail traffic that goes through there, and I think people would say, 'Wait a minute, we're not part of this protection,'" said Cantwell.

The Problem Solvers asked Burlington Northern Sante Fe Railway to comment on Wednesday’s developments. The company had no specific reaction to TSA's conclusion that the KOMO News investigation has raised safety and security concerns.

But BNSF Railway spokesman Gus Melonas sent the following written statement: "BNSF has and will continue to work with regulatory agencies to assure the safety and security of the rail network."