Rail security presents many challenges for anti-terrorism planners
The New York Times, Washington Post, and Wall Street Journal (subscription required) all come to that conclusion with articles in Friday's paper. Passenger volume makes it difficult to screen train travelers as exhaustingly as air travelers. Additionally, easy access to train lines on the ground in remote (and not so remote) locations makes it easy to plant an improvised explosive device on a train line. According to the WSJ:
The challenge, authorities have long since decided, is too great: Rail systems typically span hundreds of miles of track and facilities, too large to be watched constantly and completely, and move thousands of people every day, with only limited means to screen passengers and their belongings. The systems put a premium on moving people in and out of trains and stations quickly, so stopping passengers for airport-style security checks hasn't gained traction. Funding to install massive extra security has often been difficult to come by.The NYT echoes those concerns, and adds that train lines have been targeted in recent years because of these vulnerabilities.
Concerns over the security of both commuter trains and subway trains grew even more pronounced Thursday with the possibility that the bombings in Spain might be linked to al Qaeda, instead of Basque separatists, as originally thought. The U.S. has escaped such tragedy so far, but transportation officials are well aware of the dangers. In October 2002, the Federal Bureau of Investigation alerted state and local law-enforcement agencies that al Qaeda terrorists might target U.S. passenger trains. The FBI announcement painted a broad threat, describing potential attacks on passenger trains, subways, commuter lines and freight trains.
The U.S. rail system includes about 140,000 miles of routes and some 500 Amtrak stations. There are hundreds more commuter train stations. This makes it almost impossible to fully secure them from potential terrorist attacks. And unlike airlines and airports, the rail system faces few mandatory security requirements, meaning that passengers and baggage get aboard with little or no screening.
Brian Jenkins, a transportation security specialist at the Mineta Transportation Institute, said the Madrid bombings, like the frequent bus bombings in Israel and the occupied territories, the sarin gas attack in a Tokyo subway in 1995 and other attacks, showed the vulnerability of mass transit systems.And according to the Washington Post, there hasn't been the kind of specific intelligence yet which would make the Department of Homeland Security jump through its fourth point of contact to implement such measures:
"Our ability to prevent these attacks is limited because public service transportation is public and therefore is easily accessible, and the volume of traffic on these systems is huge," dwarfing air transit, Mr. Jenkins said in an interview.
Officials say that it would be nearly impossible to check every passenger boarding from myriad train platforms along any given rail line, or to screen the luggage and other bags that are carried on every day.
Experts say that to be successful, public transit must be convenient and inexpensive, making it difficult to impose the types of strict security seen at airports. The passenger volumes are enormous, about 14 million people a day, according to the American Public Transportation Association, of whom most are on buses, plus about 4 million on subways, suburban commuter trains or other rail transport, and smaller numbers on ferries. In contrast, there are a little under 2 million airplane boardings every day.
"We acknowledge the U.S. rail sector has vulnerabilities which terrorists may choose to exploit," said the bulletin, sent Thursday to local law enforcement officials and transit authorities. "Trains and rail stations remain potential targets for terrorist groups due to their reduced security (in comparison to airports)."Analysis: So, it's really hard to secure railroads -- both cargo and passenger rail travel. America devotes an inordinate amount of money to the security of passenger air travel, largely because of our experience on 9/11, without a proportional amount of money for air cargo or rail transportation. Relative to passenger air travel, air cargo and rail transportation are thus compartively unprotected. They are "soft" targets in force protection parlance. The conventional wisdom in AT/FP planning is that the more you protect the hard targets (i.e. airports), the more likely you make an attack on a soft target (i.e. train station). That has been the inherent risk of America's homeland security strategy since 9/11, and the attacks in Spain bring home just how risky this strategy has been.
Transit systems across the country, including the Washington area's Metro system and New York's subway, tightened security yesterday as federal officials kept in close touch with them about the latest intelligence from Madrid on the 10 tightly choreographed bombings that killed nearly 200 people during the morning rush hour on Thursday. The attacks came five weeks after a Moscow subway bombing that killed 41 people.
Asa Hutchinson, the Homeland Security Department's undersecretary for border and transportation security, told reporters yesterday that the U.S. intelligence community has "no specific indicators that terrorist groups are considering such attacks in the United States in the near term."
Yet Hutchinson also said that "we've had a substantial concern over the threat of attack on our mass-transit systems," in part because of what he and other government officials say is al Qaeda's ceaseless preoccupation with striking U.S. transportation networks of all sorts.
So, can we afford this risk? The answer is, like most things, "it depends". If we perceive there to be a real threat to passenger air travel, then we still must protect that mode of transportation. Unlike trains, airplanes can be flown into buildings and transformed into guided missiles, and thus they pose a larger destructive capacity than trains. On the other hand, we probably ought to scrutinize the parts of our rail system that look most attractive to terrorists: densely populated stations (e.g. Penn Station in NYC, Union Station in DC), rail movements of hazardous materials, and critical rail junctures that would have a major disruptive effect if targeted. Eventually, we may also have to suck up the price of some kind of passenger screening on trains, because nothing short of passenger screening will effectively prevent a Madrid-style backpack bombing. But that would be enormously costly, both in terms of the security itself and the lost efficiency of rail travel. Pervasive surveillance of train stations might also be a solution, but only if you're willing to pay for the systems and willing to be constantly surveilled. I'm sure there are other less obvious solutions out there too. At the end of the day, every security solution has a risk and a payoff, and it's up to our decisionmakers to get that right.