Amtrak and the TSA

by Wendy Thomson on June 24, 2012

With the May 30th passing of Rep. Jackie Speier’s legislation allowing the TSA to share data with all manner of ground transportation, the question comes to mind, what’s next? Will we be assaulted every time we try to travel from point A to point B, no matter by what means?     

TSA News recently received an email from a Philadelphia reader commenting that he saw TSA agents at a train station:

I was on a train from NY Penn Station to Philly today. Three uniformed TSA agents were waiting at the top of the stairs to randomly screen passengers before boarding. This is the equivalent of the final random witch-hunt gate search at the airport.

What gives?

1.  I thought TSA had been banned from Amtrak?

2.  I wasn’t selected, but Amtrak is running videos in the station that say passengers are subject to random search. Does that mean a TSA search or an Amtrak search?

3.  According to the video, anyone who refuses a random search will not be allowed on a train. I thought I could say “I do not consent” and get on board. Can someone clarify?

If they’re at the train stations, it’s an ominous sign.

Here’s some background. The TSA’s appearance at train stations, bus stations, subways, and ferries may be “an ominous sign,” but isn’t new. Its so-called VIPR teams have been conducting random, unwarranted searches at venues other than airports since 2005.

After the debacle in Savannah, Georgia, where TSA agents simply took over the Amtrak station and searched whomever they liked, including passengers after they got off the train, Amtrak Police Chief John O’Connor hit the roof. He told the TSA that its employees would never be allowed to set foot in an Amtrak station again without first asking permission, and if said permission was granted, they would have to be accompanied by Amtrak police.

That’s why our reader saw TSA agents at New York’s Penn Station. So no, they haven’t been banned.

On the other hand, if the TSA is told to leave by the owner of the real estate in question — train stations, subways, even airports — they must leave. That is a legal fact.

Of course, airlines and airports want to be liable for security to the least extent possible, so they allow the TSA floor space. Amtrak has its own police force and has more than once asked the TSA to leave (also see here).

Amtrak conducts its own security and has a stated policy of what that entails. An excerpt from that policy addresses our reader’s other questions:

With due respect to passengers’ privacy, the random screening and inspection of passengers and their personal items will be completed as quickly as possible — usually in less than a minute. Passengers failing to consent to security procedures will be denied access to trains and refused carriage, and a refund will be offered.

Train stations, however, unlike airports, have not agreed to designate “sterile areas.” That means that a TSA agent cannot deny you entry to any area anywhere other than at an airport.

I read a blog entry a few months ago that described a man encountering a TSA agent at a train station. The man didn’t want to deal with the TSA agent, so the agent called for the local police. The man explained to the policeman that he was in a public area, and if the policeman was intent upon detaining him, he asked exactly which local/state law or statute the policeman was attempting to enforce. He was allowed to proceed without further incident.

The best defense against TSA assault is knowledge. Understanding the TSA’s jurisdiction, its limitations, and the definition of which laws apply to which venues is critical in successfully asserting your rights.

Blue shirts and badges notwithstanding.

(Photo: Flickr Creative Commons/toastthemost)

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