In a nation divided on almost every issue, there is one topic which brings almost universal agreement: travelers hate the experience they face at America's airports. Security is slow, inefficient, and at times downright humiliating, they complain. Surely there must be a way to protect the system, without insulting the very customers that system is designed to serve.
Welcome to Amtrak.
Every day, thousands board trains across America, without ever passing through a metal detector, subjecting themselves to a full body scan, or feeling the probing hands of a surly security guard. Indeed, on most routes, passengers are left to wonder if they have been screened at all.
"The machines would literally shut the system down," says John O’Connor, the Chief of the Amtrak Police. "You can put a canine in literally thousands of people moving through very quickly. And that dog will be able to detect if somebody has explosives."
That's right; with few exceptions, Amtrak's "scanners" are dogs. Often unnoticed by most of the rail agency's passengers, the four-legged security guards relentlessly scour the crowded concourses and platforms, looking for trouble.
The animals are specially trained "vapor wake" dogs, custom-bred to serve a very specific function: detecting the microscopic traces of explosives, which trail in the air behind would-be bombers.
"We don’t stop anybody, or intrude on anybody's path, or rights," says Inspector William Parker, the chief of the Amtrak K-9 program. "Like I tell people, 'Come to Amtrak; we don’t undress you, we don't mess with you.'"
On a recent morning at Chicago’s Union Station, two different Amtrak dogs were working the concourses, circling in and out of the commuters. But the dogs weren’t sniffing the passengers. They were sampling the molecules those passengers left behind.
"He’s smelling the air," Parker said, watching his animals work. "As you see, that dog pulls to wherever somebody's walking, because he wants to search people. He knows what the mission is."
And the dogs can be remarkably accurate. On that morning in Chicago, decoys sent through the crowds, carrying real explosives under their clothing, were quickly identified. Often, that identification came after the bombers passed. But at that point, the dogs caught the telltale scent of explosives, swiveled, and locked in on their prey, leading handlers to the danger.
"They can work a crowd of a thousand people, moving, whereas you can only put a couple hundred people through a machine in an hour," said O'Connor says. "If you’re a bad guy, and you're planning something at this station, you don't know where we're going to be. And you may think, this is not the station I want to attack."
To be certain, the dogs aren’t everywhere on the system. Amtrak officials argue that the randomness and unpredictability of the K-9 program adds to its effectiveness.
Indeed, in a recent hearing on Capitol Hill, the Amtrak dogs were held up as the gold standard of what security could be. At the height of a blistering tongue-lashing delivered to a seemingly bored Transportation Security Administration official, Republican Congressman Jason Chaffetz of Utah pointed to Amtrak’s Parker and issued a challenge.
"You take a thousand people and put them in a room. I'll give you 10 whole body imaging machines. You give me 5,000 people in another room. You give me one of his dogs, and we will find that bomb before you find your bomb."
TSA officials argue that the dogs don't come cheap and require a full complement of handlers. The TSA supports Amtrak's program, but critics note that officers at the nation's airports are looking for a lot more than just bombs.
"I think the dogs could be used effectively at the airports," O'Connor said. "It may not replace what's there now, but it can supplement it. And in some cases, substitute for it, in places where it might be more efficient to use the dogs than the machines."
Watching his dogs work the concourses in Chicago, Parker didn't flinch when asked about the congressman's challenge.
"I know I would have won it," he said. "With the dogs I have at Amtrak, we would have won it."