Amtrak IG details Union Station security deficiencies

Report outlines car driving onto tracks, doors propped open, security guards not checking permits

Union Station has grave security vulnerabilities, according to a report by Amtrak’s inspector general. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Union Station has grave security vulnerabilities, according to a report by Amtrak’s inspector general. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted July 30, 2019 at 5:07pm

Security shortcomings at Amtrak’s second busiest station, Washington Union Station, have allowed an unauthorized car to drive onto the tracks and continue to leave the transportation hub and its patrons at risk, according to a report by Amtrak’s inspector general.

The report found that an entrance to Union Station is vulnerable to trespassers; interior doors are not secure; video surveillance cameras are not operational; and the company’s incident reporting process and radio limitations hamper the Amtrak police force’s response to security incidents at the station that served more than 5 million riders in the 2018 fiscal year.

Kimberly Woods, an Amtrak spokesperson, said in an emailed statement that the railroad service is addressing the issues. 

“We agree with the Amtrak inspector general’s recommendations for improving security at Washington Union Station and Ivy City Yard. We have taken important steps for improvements such as creating a plan to document how we will address the vulnerabilities OIG identified at the station and yard by September 2019,” Woods said.

“Projects have been underway to improve the security of the First Street entrance,” she said, adding that work was also underway on interior station doors, the train yard and maintenance facility, the video surveillance system, and radio communications.

Woods’ statement indicated vulnerability at the First Street Northeast entrance to Union Station. The report, released on July 22, has many redactions, including specific locations identified as vulnerable. Another spokesperson, Christina Leeds, said she could not confirm that First Street was the vulnerable entrance mentioned in the report.

“Sorry, I can’t provide this,” Leeds said in an email. 

The Department of Transportation owns the station and leases it to the Union Station Redevelopment Corporation, a company that subleases the ticketing, gate and boarding areas to Amtrak. The inspector general review is focused on components of the station that Amtrak controls or subleases.

Union Station lies in close proximity to the Capitol, Supreme Court and other federal buildings that are top targets for criminal activity. The U.S. Capitol Police maintains a substantial presence in the vicinity and has arrested several suspects at and around the station.

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Unsecured access

On March 15, a trespasser used an open entrance to access the station and drove an unauthorized vehicle onto the tracks. Physical barriers were not in place at the entrance and the security guard failed to effectively screen the driver, resulting in the unauthorized access to the station, the report said.

Further, the report notes that Amtrak employees and Allied Security guards said the barriers had been inoperable for years. The contracted security guards did not consistently check vehicles, drivers and pedestrians who accessed the vulnerable entrance, the report said.

Security guards interviewed by the inspector general’s office said they routinely let vehicles and employees they recognized enter without physically observing their identifications and permits. During a March 11 inspection, the inspector general’s office found that none of the 11 vehicles parked in the station’s West parking lot displayed valid permits.

A six-step incident reporting process and radio limitations at Amtrak are severely delaying the police response to security threats, criminals or other incidents, according to the report.

Amtrak directs employees who observe a security issue to text or call the Amtrak Police Department’s number, but employees are prohibited from carrying personal cell phones unless otherwise authorized.

Instead, they have to contact their supervisor, who uses the department’s radio to report the incident. The supervisor has to radio a local control center. That center then calls the National Communications Center, which radios to dispatch the Amtrak Police Department.

“As of March 2019, alternative solutions to improve the process had not been explored, such as the feasibility of installing emergency call boxes within Amtrak stations and facilities to enable employees and passengers to more efficiently reach APD,” the report said.

Police officers at Amtrak sometimes cannot hear dispatches or each other because the radio signal is so poor, according to the report. It also stated that Amtrak Police Department officials told the inspector general’s office that they asked Amtrak’s leadership for $19.5 million in funding to replace the radios but, as of May, funding had not been provided to resolve the issue.

Doors controlling the access to Amtrak offices and restricted areas in Union Station are not secure because Amtrak has not identified which department is responsible for policies on locks, keys and doors, according to the report.

This includes doors propped open, ineffective use of card readers and codes that are not regularly changed. Additionally, some of the video surveillance cameras in Union Station are not functioning because Amtrak hasn’t determined which department is responsible for managing and funding this maintenance.