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Al-Qaida wanted to hit Chicago trains, security stepped up

Increased security was visible UniStatiFriday. Security has been more visible since OsambLaden waskilled. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Increased security was visible at Union Station on Friday. Security has been more visible since Osama bin Laden wasa killed. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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Updated: May 9, 2011 5:29PM

Already on high alert because of the killing of Osama bin Laden, rail services in the Chicago area took extra steps Friday to protect their passengers after learning of terrorists’ scheme to derail a train in the United States.

The Department of Homeland Security and FBI released an alert Thursday saying that since February 2010, al-Qaida was discussing a terrorist operation against trains, said Roderick Drew of the Chicago’s 911 center.

“There is no recent information indicating an active ongoing plot to target transportation, nor is there information on possible locations or specific targets,” Drew said.

After the alert was issued, Metra boosted its track inspections, said agency spokeswoman Judy Pardonnet. Metra is guarding against derailments by using “geometry cars” to ensure tracks are the proper width and “highliner” trucks to inspect the tracks, Pardonnet said.

In 2007, officials discovered that railroad spikes were missing from tracks on Metra’s Electric and South Shore lines. The FBI is continuing to investigate their disappearance. There’s a $50,000 reward for information leading to whomever is responsible, Pardonnet said.

Metra has also bolstered uniformed police patrols of its stations and platforms, as well as the use of bomb dogs, Pardonnet said.

Metra, the Chicago Transit Authority and Amtrak have been on high alert since U.S. Special Forces killed bin Laden at his home in Pakistan in a daring raid Sunday, officials said.

Plainclothes Chicago Police officers have been placed in uniform since Monday to increase their visibility, a department spokeswoman said.

Thursday’s alert warned of the possibility of an attack that could take place on a significant U.S. date such as Sept. 11 — the 10th anniversary of the World Trade Center attack.

The alert stemmed from a handwritten notebook from February 2010 that was recovered from the home of bin Laden. The notebook included passages about tampering with rail tracks to derail a train on a bridge, possibly on Christmas, New Year’s Day, the day of the State of the Union address or Sept. 11, the New York Times reported Friday.

Although the alert did not list any targeted cities, material gathered from bin Laden’s home indicated that al-Qaida was focused on striking Washington, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, federal officials said.

On Friday afternoon, several Metra commuters said they believe they’re safe — despite the ominous warning.

“Commuters who have a daily routine, they get on the train at a certain time, they see familiar faces,” said Arbin Smith, 44, a management consultant who lives in Chicago’s Ravenswood neighborhood.

“But if you see something that is slightly off-kilter, you’re going to notice it right away,” said Smith as he waited for a train at Ogilvie Transportation Center.

Doug Wexler, a Metra commuter, said: “I am not the least bit concerned about the rail system in America. I just think that they are doing a better job with intelligence and that they do a good job of policing it already,” said Wexler. He added that people are also more vigilant and willing to report anything suspicious to authorities.

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