Letter to Amtrak re TSA

AmtrakVIPR
Following is a letter to Amtrak management written by one of our regular readers. I know this reader, and since he requested anonymity for the purposes of posting his letter at TSA News, I have honored that request. For those who don’t know what the TSA is — and has been for years — doing at train stations, subways, buses, ferries, and even on the highway, I refer you to our many posts about the TSA’s VIPR teams, going back to our first one, in 2011 (and be sure to read about the Savannah debacle). In the letter, “APD” refers to Amtrak Police Department, and “PVD” means Providence, Rhode Island. 

To Whom It May Concern:

I am a hitherto satisfied Amtrak customer writing out of concern over a video I’ve seen recently and its potentially troubling implications regarding my future of travel with Amtrak.

I saw a video recording of uniformed TSA clerks conducting what appear to be searches of passenger baggage in the main boarding area at Chicago Union Station. At about 11-13 seconds into the video, a person can be seen pointing toward something that is obscured by curtains and another body. Though the quality of the video is insufficiently clear to be certain, I fear that these people are APD officers who are enforcing TSA’s screening initiative and refusing to allow passengers to board until they or their baggage are searched by TSA. The video in question, which is dated May 7, 2014, can be seen here: http://therundownlive.com/tsa-searching-amtrak-riders-chicagos-union-station/

I had written last summer about a similar concern (regarding the RAIL-SAFE program) before a trip to PVD in August of 2013 and received a punctual and very professional follow-up call from APD Deputy Chief Dan Dugan. Mr. Dugan and I then had a pleasant and enlightening conversation about APD’s efforts, which left me with renewed confidence in both Amtrak and APD, and I learned that if I felt uncomfortable or unsafe at any point in my travels with Amtrak, I could summon an APD officer for aid and deal exclusively with them and not TSA. As any TSA presence is a direct cause of such feelings of unsafety, my inclination would be to call for APD assistance at that time. As previously mentioned, however, the video appears to show an APD officer supporting the TSA screening initiative and I’m no longer confident that I could.

At this point I feel it is necessary to clarify that I have read the Amtrak policy regarding baggage searches on the Amtrak website and I absolutely do agree to such checks, as performed by APD.  However, I do not consent to TSA searches or recognize any claims to authority that TSA makes at an Amtrak rail station, as it is not an airport and there is no “sterile area” in a train station to which TSA is empowered to deny passengers entry. In traveling with Amtrak, it is my intent to cooperate fully with Amtrak and APD personnel, but to avoid TSA encounters entirely. It is TSA that has seen passengers, including myself, leaving air travel in droves for alternate modes of transportation – modes which frequently include Amtrak trains.

Please understand also that I am in no way criticizing Amtrak, its staff, or the sworn officers of APD. The few interactions I’ve had with Amtrak Police, particularly Deputy Chief Dugan, have seen them conducting themselves professionally and courteously. My concern is for my rights, my privacy, and my freedom to be left alone when traveling, and this recent occurrence has me very worried.

I traveled with Amtrak for the first time in April of 2012. The comfort and amenities of Amtrak trains, and pleasantness of Amtrak staff, are second to none in the travel world. Most of all, however, I loved the fact that I could go from my own front door all the way to my destination and back without a single security check of any kind. This lack of checkpoints, to me, is positive and highly desirable, and is a critical factor in my continuing to patronize Amtrak as my preferred method of travel. I know that APD is active behind the scenes and I have never needed or wanted checkpoints to know I’m in good hands.

To reiterate, I take Amtrak for the express purpose of avoiding TSA. Since my 2012 trip, I’ve gone all-in for rail travel. I’ve acquired an AGR Mastercard; retooled my travel scheduling, destination selections, and luggage to best fit train journeys; and have generally made an annoyance of myself to my family and friends in extolling the virtues of traveling without security theater by taking Amtrak. It would be extremely unfortunate to have to abandon rail due to TSA involvement, but I am willing to switch to driving (and have joined AAA in preparation for this possibility) if I have to. I would rather give my business to Amtrak than to hotels and gas stations, but I will do what I must to remain safe from TSA searches.

As a freedom-loving individual, a sufferer of severe clinically diagnosed anxiety relating directly to TSA and security checkpoints, and an avid rail fan who considers Amtrak to be the pinnacle of travel in the US, I’m seeking reassurance that Amtrak remains a viable option for TSA-free travel for myself and my family.

Sincerely Yours,

(Amtrak Traveler/Name Removed)

  • Susan J. Barretta

    The travel stats do not bear out that we have left “air travel in droves” at least enough to have a major fiscal impact on the airlines. Airline passengers peaked in 2008 and the introduction of intrusive screening methods in 2010 shows no material impact on ridership. In other words, those of us who have stopped traveling because of TSA’s invasive screening methods are too few to have an impact.

    I had already exiled myself from airports when it happened, but ever since I read about how one bomb sniffing dog attacked an innocent woman in Atlanta airport, I have resolved even more so to stay away from law enforcement officials with dogs. Police dogs to not provide me “comfort” at all – and I have taken courses in animal psychology, have trained dogs and have run a pet care service! I know enough to know that a dog in the hands of a police state is a tool of the police state.

    I don’t consent to searches of my self either. You open up the door for one agency to search you, and you open the door for all of them. “He can touch me because she’s wearing a yellow uniform, but he can’t touch me because he’s wearing a blue uniform” makes no sense.

    I liked Wendy’s approach. The next time your local municipality calls you up for jury duty, if you have to be groped to walk into the courthouse, tell them you won’t be able to serve.

    If there is anybody out there reading thinking these gropes and scans and invasive searches “keep us safe”, here is a story for you. A power station in Silicon Valley was attacked in early 2013. It took a month to repair the damage. The FBI still doesn’t know who did it. Terrorists don’t need planes and trains to bring down this country and all that groping and scoping is a waste of time and money. If you don’t believe me about the Silicon Valley attack, see: “Attack on Electric grid raises alarm”, February 6, 2014, Los Angeles Times.

  • Well, unlike our writer, I don’t consent to APD searches of my self/belongings either. It matters little what security letters are on the uniforms. I don’t want Amtrak police pawing through my bags anymore than I want TSA goons doing so.

    And APD officers with dogs patrolling the station don’t make me “feel safer” either. I see them all the time on my home turf — Penn Station in Baltimore. They’re there for one thing: drugs. The 95 corridor — car and train — is a well-known drug route. I have never seen them searching anyone, though, nor would I consent to a search.

    The one time they were pricks was right after 9/11. I was commuting to DC by train, just as I’d always done. A bunch of us went down to the platform to wait for the train we knew was coming on that particular platform at that particular time, just as we’d always done. This officer at the top of the stairs screamed — and I do mean screamed — at us to get off the platform and come back up into the station until the train arrived. To my fellow passengers, I rolled my eyes and muttered under my breath, “Yeah, we’re all terrorists.”

    That’s when I knew the idiocy was only beginning.

  • Robert Hollis Weber

    I’ve said this many times: I ride Amtrak several times each month between DC/Philly/New York. As each train is boarding, an Amtrak police officer with a bomb-sniffing dog stands at the top of the stairs as everyone heads to the platform. Once the train is boarded, the officer patrols the rest of the station until it’s time to stand at the head of another stairway for the next train. This process is comprehensive, unobtrusive, non-invasive, professional, and frankly makes me feel safer.

    At the same time, TSA occasionally sets up a table next to a random gate for a random train and randomly swabs bags of hand-selected passengers. Often they will sit and gossip with one another, oblivious to what’s happening around them, until boarding begins. Candidly, they look foolish and unprofessional and the “security” they provide is easy to avoid by simply waiting for a train that isn’t being screened.

    Of course, there are thousands of miles of unprotected track in the United States, and a determined terrorist would most likely place an explosive along these tracks rather than try to carry one onto a train, but TSA insists on carrying on its farcical “security screenings.”

    As I have often said, I am all in favor of security. But inasmuch as TSA’s screening is redundant, inconsistent, poorly performed, easily avoided, and probably pointless, it should be stopped immediately.

    The author of the TSA letter is welcome to contact me through this site and I’ll add my testimony to his/hers.

    • davidgilmore

      Glad to see this discussion. I too try to avoid flying when possible. Of course in Western states, it means overnights on the train. But I savor the chance to travel without the anxiety of being pawed and having my luggage contents picked apart. Amtrak needs to know that they benefit from those of us avoiding flying and not recreate the whole airport security debacle in a train station.

  • Susan Richart

    Please let us know of any response the writer receives from Amtrak.

    • Will do. But given that Amtrak has been allowing VIPR infestation since 2005, so this is nothing new, I imagine it’ll be boilerplate. Nice boilerplate, courteous boilerplate, but boilerplate nonetheless.