TSA can't connect the dots on passenger rail security, GAO says

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Because the Transportation Security Administration has given passenger rail agencies different instructions on what security issues to report, the TSA struggles to identify security trends--which is the point of the reports, the Government Accountability Office says.

In 2008, TSA issued a regulation requiring passenger rail agencies to report security concerns and threats. TSA inspectors who work with those agencies, though, sometimes give contradictory guidance. For example, one rail agency told auditors that it must report when a person is struck by a train, because the person had to breach security to be hit. Another agency was told to omit those incidents because they tend to be suicides, which don't pose a security threat.

Before it issued the regulation, TSA heard from rail officials who said the proposed rule wasn't specific enough and would result in an excess of information. In response, TSA said a wider scope would help it see broad security trends, the GAO says in a report (.pdf) released Dec. 19.

TSA has maintained that position, but headquarters officials and local inspectors did tell auditors that clearer guidance could ensure more consistency, the report says.

For airport security, auditors say, TSA has issued clear, written guidance about the types of incidents that should be reported. Similar guidance for rail inspectors could make their reports more consistent, and that could help TSA "connect the dots"--TSA's stated purpose for collecting the information.

The frequency of inspections also varies widely. Over the course of about 18 months, of the rail agencies auditors contacted, seven had been inspected at least 18 times, while three hadn't been inspected at all. One of those three was a major metropolitan rail agency unspecified in the report.

TSA inspected one rail agency three times in a single day but only one more time in the 18-month span, the report notes.

A range of actions can constitute an inspection for TSA. Inspectors can call a rail agency to ask whether it reported a certain incident, and that counts as an inspection. So does a rigorous on-site visit, the report says.

For more:
- download the report, GAO-13-20 (.pdf)

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