Beware the Amtrak Security Scam

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Amtrak — America’s socialized passenger rail service — is ever-desperate for passengers to justify its existence. For its latest futile publicity stunt, it wants us all to celebrate “National Train Day” at train stations across America today.

At Union Station in Los Angeles, for example, you can enjoy such not-so-fun-sounding events as a free concert by Drake Bell, star of Superhero Movie; an appearance by “ARTE,” Amtrak’s “environmental mascot;” and a “Train Driving Simulator,” which one might imagine is somewhat like the actual car driving you will do on the way to the event, only with less steering and more cow-catching.

Amid the festivities, there’s one thing we can safely assume no one will be singing about: Amtrak’s draconian new security measures. These reflect a drastic change from Amtrak’s heretofore easygoing policies that allowed you to pretty much just show up and board — no searches, no wandings, no pat-downs. Whatever one might say about Amtrak otherwise, this was its great advantage over air travel in the months and years following September 11, 2001.

Now, though, Amtrak is sending police to perform random screenings of passengers’ carry-on bags. It’s also deploying bomb-sniffing dogs and police armed with automatic weapons to patrol trains and platforms.

If a passenger doesn’t want to have his bag searched, he’s free to decline, not board the train, and have his ticket price refunded.

How any of this will increase passenger safety remains a mystery.

Presumably anyone who wants to carry a bomb onto a train will exercise his option not to have his bag searched, not board the train, and — unless he is an exceptionally lazy terrorist — come back on a day when the screening team isn’t there.

But don’t consider that an argument for screening everyone all the time. After all, why would a terrorist targeting a train bother to board it at all? He can’t hijack it, because there’s no place to take it except where it was going anyway. Presumably it would make a lot more sense — and I don’t think I’m giving anyone any new ideas here — for him to attack the tracks, which Amtrak cannot possibly guard along their entire length.

So it’s difficult to see what benefits this program might bring. But what about the costs?

The first and most obvious cost is compromised liberty and privacy. People should be free to travel without having to show papers or prove they aren’t criminals — especially where, as here, Amtrak has not come forward with any compelling reasons why an exception should be made to this usual rule.

These police searches might conveniently turn up evidence of contraband other than terrorist weapons in passengers’ bags, and allow them to be arrested for that instead. Indeed, how long will it be before the bomb-sniffing dogs are supplemented by those of the dope-sniffing variety? You might argue that it’s just as well to catch people committing other crimes, even victimless ones like drug possession. But if that’s the main “benefit,” then Amtrak should say so and not use the pretense of protecting us from terrorism.

Another cost of Amtrak’s plans is that they may make Americans accustomed to hallmarks of a police state: random searches, and men in uniform with big guns. That may not matter much to the masses of sheep who often seem so willing to trade liberty for false security, but it still means a lot to many Americans, and meant a lot to our Founding Fathers as well.

Amtrak may also pay a monetary cost: the new measures not only will cost money to implement, but may also make rail travel even less popular than it already is. Even if we assume that most Americans don’t mind giving up some liberty, travelers don’t like to be slowed down. Sure, Amtrak claims that the screenings are “not expected” to cause delays, but such promises from an essentially governmental entity are hardly reassuring, especially in light of the Transportation Security Administration’s record.

One thing that is certainly “not expected” by anyone is a profit for Amtrak in 2008, or ever. Instead, Amtrak has to return to taxpayers with its hand out year after year, presently getting about $1 billion annually from the federal government and many millions more from state governments. A real business could not function in this way: it would close its unprofitable lines (in Amtrak’s case, almost all of them) or immediately find a way to make them profitable, or it would go out of business.

In any event, a private business would not waste money on pointless projects like Amtrak’s security scam — which confer no benefit to anyone but instead impose costs on both the business and its customer.

J. H. Huebert [send him mail] is an award-winning attorney, a former clerk to a judge of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and an adjunct faculty member of the Ludwig von Mises Institute. Visit his website.

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