NEW CARROLLTON - One by one, the commuters - about 250 of them - paused during evening rush hour yesterday at the New Carrollton commuter rail station to step into a portal the size of a phone booth. There, several cool puffs of air shot at them, enough air to blow neckties into the air.
The scene was the launch of a national pilot test program to make rail travel safer.
The passengers and nearly 400 bags were screened for explosives at the Prince George's County station- the first such test on a commuter rail system in the country.
"We're finding a mostly receptive audience," said Don Thompson, director of passenger security for Maritime and Land Security in the U.S. Department of Homeland Security's Transportation Security Administration.
For 30 days, TSA officials will collect data on Amtrak and commuter rail passengers at the New Carrollton station during peak travel times in the morning and evening. The lessons learned from the Transit and Rail Inspection Program (TRIP) will be used at other stations, Thompson said.
"The whole process is trying to measure how efficient are our screeners," he said.
Yesterday afternoon, there were no lines at the checkpoint. Gray cubicle walls had been arranged in a long hallway leading to the Amtrak and MARC gates to guide passengers through the system.
Commuters put their bags and jackets in trays which staff then slid through the X-ray machine on a counter lined with large ball bearings. Seven bags set off alarms, which prompted additional searches.
Of the 14 trains passing through the station between 3:15 p.m. and 6 p.m., most passengers were heading northbound on the Maryland Rail Commuter service's Penn line, Thompson said.
He said Amtrak officials notified them when trains were two to three minutes away from departure and allowed passengers still arriving to bypass the test.
Passengers also were videotaped in the portal, Thompson said, to verify the time each spent during the screening depending on whether they set off an alarm.
Although some passengers could be heard uttering an expletive or two as they gathered their belongings from the X-ray machine and rushed to the platform, most seemed happy about the extra layer of protection.
"I was dreading it today," said Portia D. Bingham, who works for the Internal Revenue Service in New Carrollton.
The Woodlawn resident said she left work five minutes earlier than usual expecting lines and delays but didn't experience any problems.
"It was quick. It was easy," she said. "It seems like it's going pretty easy for the first day."
OK with screenings
Bingham, like other commuters yesterday afternoon, said that the additional screenings were needed because of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks and the recent bombings in Madrid.
"As MARC riders, we were concerned ... I always know it's for our own good," she said.
"Mass transit is probably the most vulnerable. ... There is a back-of-the-mind concern" about safety, said Lee Falk, a computer analyst who was returning to his home in Halethorpe.
Most thought the test was convenient.
"It's faster than the plane ... it's less invasive," said Lance Randall, an engineer heading off to his northbound MARC train to West Baltimore.
"I think it didn't take long, compared to the safety you get," said Bowie resident Josephine Ndoe who was traveling to class at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
Going to New York
Suzanne Garner, a marketing specialist from Silver Spring on her way to New York for a business trip, said she was surprised by the quality of assistance but was skeptical that it could remain that way.
"This was like, exceedingly very nice. ... I'd be curious to see if the service would change" after several weeks, she said.
Originally from New York state, Garner said she appreciated the extra security.
"After 9/11, I don't care," she said.
But riding the rails offers convenience. "I can get here 10 minutes before the train and leave," she said.
As a frequent traveler she remembered enduring extra security checks. While traveling at Washington Dulles International Airport, for example, things seemed very disorganized, she said.
"It was a nightmare," Garner said.
Thompson of TSA said that different tests will be conducted at other locations - on stored baggage at Union Station in Washington, for example. The agency is also considering what technology can be used at Amtrak's unmanned stations, where passengers purchase tickets on board.