Democrats on the panel said the bin Laden documents underscore the need to spend more on rail safety, especially because Amtrak is setting ridership records year after year and demand is exploding for passenger rail in heavily crowded areas like the Northeast Corridor.
People took 10 billion trips on passenger trains and mass transit last year, compared to 700 million airline trips, said Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J.
"And yet we spend 98 percent of our money on aviation security and 2 percent on rail security," he said. "We know that [rail targets] are soft points for terrorists, and that's confirmed by the information obtained."
The Transportation Security Administration is more focused on blocking hazardous cargo from entering cities on freight trains than protecting bridges and tunnels used by Amtrak, said Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., who leads the Appropriations subcommittee.
Documents seized by Navy SEALs during the May 1 raid on bin Laden's compound in Pakistan show al-Qaida had preliminary plans to derail trains on the 10th anniversary of the 2001 attacks.
Terrorists have struck train and subway systems in Spain, England, India and Russia in recent years.
Amtrak, the nation's only passenger rail system, is focusing its security-enhancing efforts on the Northeast Corridor, which connects Washington, New York and Boston and is the nation's most traveled and most vulnerable line. About 700,000 passengers travel on the corridor every day.
"We're most concerned with the possibility of an external attack on a train at a vulnerable point, whether that be a bridge or a tunnel," Boardman said.
Technology that can pinpoint where track has been tampered with is in its infancy and has limited applications to slow-moving freight trains, he said.
More federal funding could help speed development of derailment-prevention devices on the high-speed rail network the Obama administration wants to establish, Boardman said.
Amtrak works closely with New York and New Jersey law enforcement agencies, conducts air and foot patrols and does daily track inspections, Amtrak Police Chief John O'Connor said after Tuesday's hearing.
"You can't create a 100 percent secure bubble," O'Connor said . "But now that we know the threat we can take specific actions to deal with it."