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Train security puzzling

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By SUSAN TAYLOR MARTIN, Times Senior Correspondent

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 10, 2002


TORONTO -- Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, we've heard plenty about the security hassles facing travelers who fly into the United States. But what about those who arrive by rail?

To find out, I rode from Toronto to Chicago last week on Train No. 365, jointly operated by Amtrak and Via Rail Canada. My interest was piqued by a recent letter to the Ottawa Citizen in which a Canadian complained that some of his fellow passengers on the same train had been rudely treated by U.S. authorities at the border near Port Huron, Mich.

"Without exception, every Canadian who was not of obvious Caucasian origin was removed from the train for 'further questioning' and held in a dingy trailer near the tracks," wrote Stephen Carisse, a French-Canadian who's in the software business. "This included a tiny woman of East Indian heritage who was traveling with her 2-year-old son. She had to struggle off the train and back on with all her luggage and child, entirely without assistance, as officials and soldiers stood by."

Tuesday, there were no mothers and toddlers among the 40 or so passengers in the coach-class car. But there were four Indian-born Canadians -- all accountants going to Chicago to take a CPA exam -- along with several college students, a retired Seattle couple and a Toronto Star reporter who was on board for the same reason as yours truly.

For the first part of the 13-hour journey, most passengers slept. The sound of snoring alternated with the wail of the train whistle as we barreled past the stubbled fields and small cities of southern Ontario -- Kitchener, London, Sarnia.

At 11:30 a.m., five hours after we left Toronto's Union Station, the train stopped in Port Huron next to the "dingy trailer," actually a tiny prefab building. Five U.S. customs and immigration agents climbed aboard and told everyone to have ticket and proof of citizenship ready for inspection.

Then the agents approached several passengers, instructing them to gather their belongings and go to the lower level of the two-tiered train car. This initial group included the Indians and several others of darker complexions.

From my window seat, I could see that two men and a woman were directed to the prefab building, apparently for a baggage search and further questioning. The rest quickly emerged from the train and headed to another car behind us.

The agents then ordered the remaining passengers, all Caucasian, to bring our carry-ons to the lower level. After a quick check of passports and a few questions, we too were instructed to get off the train and move to the rear passenger car. No reason for the move was given.

As we compared notes afterward, it was hard to fathom why agents had selected some of us for greater scrutiny. I was queried only briefly, even though I have a passport full of stamps from Arab countries. Nor did agents grill a 32-year-old man who would seem to raise several red flags -- he was single, unemployed and born in Karachi, Pakistan, a hotbed of Islamic extremism.

Instead, the agents closely questioned two white Canadian men -- the young Star reporter and a 40-ish banker. The latter said agents seemed suspicious of his Canadian passport and asked to see his driver's license.

The process lasted a relatively quick hour and 15 minutes; when there are more passengers, or more red flags, the train can sit at the border for two hours or longer, one crew member said.

Except for the delay and inconvenience of changing cars, no one seemed to mind the security checks. And while the first group of passengers selected for questioning seemed to have been chosen because of skin color, even some of those praised the U.S. agents for their politeness and professionalism.

"If you're straightforward, they're straightforward," said Yogesh Shaw, one of the Indian-born accountants. "If you act sneaky, they act sneaky."

In Chicago, I took a Southwest Airlines flight back to Tampa. Of 100 passengers, I was one of only two people selected for a random security check before boarding. The other was an elderly lady in a wheelchair.

In return for taking off our shoes and being frisked in full view of others, we were allowed to get on the plane first. Other passengers looked envious -- Southwest has no assigned seating and everyone hopes to be among the first group of passengers to board in order to claim the choicest seats.

Heightened airport security has some perks after all.

-- Susan Taylor Martin can be contacted at susan@sptimes.com

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