May 23 2011

Senator wants more ID-based controls on rail passengers

Earlier this month Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) proposed that the TSA’s “Secure Flight” system be extended to passengers on domestic Amtrak trains. That would mean that Amtrak would be required to send passenger information to the government, and receive a “cleared” message for each passenger before allowing them to board a train.

Summary denial of transport by a common carrier, much less a government-operated carrier like Amtrak, would violate both the First Amendment right to assemble and the right to freedom of movement guaranteed by Article 12 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

But extending “Secure Flight” to train travelers would be a stupid idea even if it were legal. Rail sabotage has often been a tactic of war, but it has rarely been carried out by passengers. Sabotage can be carried out anywhere along the tracks, or anywhere saboteurs can get access to rolling stock, including freight cars.

Even the Chicago Tribune, the conservative and usually hawkish newspaper-of-record of Amtrak’s main hub and the hub of America’s freight rail system, immediately responded to Schumer’s proposal with an editorial characterizing it as “security theater for Amtrak.”

Most press reports incorrectly characterized Schumer’s proposal as calling for the “creation” of a no-ride list for Amtrak trains. ¬†That’s indicative of how little awareness there is of the scope of existing systems of ID-based prior restraint on common carrier travel, including international Amtrak trains.

Under the “Advance Passenger Information System” (APIS) used for international flights, passenger trains, and cruise ships, Amtrak already requires passengers on its international trains to and from Canada to provide personal information (beyond anything needed by Amtrak for operational purposes), and passes that information on to U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) for inclusion in the Automated Targeting System (ATS) which is used to decide whether or not to give each passenger government permission to travel. Read More