Sweeping security changes unlikely in wake of foiled train attack

Sept. 4, 2015
Expert says airport-style passenger screening won’t fly on rail systems

Last week, U.S. Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) and Cory Booker (D-N.J.) sent a letter to Peter Neffenger, the new head of the Transportation Security Administration, urging the agency to implement safety and security enhancements on the nation’s passenger rail systems in light of last month’s thwarted attack on the Paris-bound, high-speed Thalys train. In that incident, the gunman, identified as 25-year-old Ayoub El Khazzani, was disarmed by three American passengers and one British passenger shortly after he emerged from a bathroom onboard the train armed with an AK-47.

“Tens of millions of riders use our country’s public transportation and passenger rail systems every day, and these networks serve as the backbone of economic activity throughout the country,” the senators wrote. “Our rail and transit networks carry significantly more people per day than our airlines do. Penn Station in New York City, for example, handles half a million passengers each day – making it busier than all three New York City regional airports combined, and the busiest transportation hub in our country. While aviation security is a vital focus of the TSA, your agency also has a critical role to play in protecting rail and transit passengers.”

The senators specifically pointed to recommendations made by the 9/11 Commission that were later passed as Congressional mandates, which requires the TSA to create a regulatory framework that addresses threats facing passenger rail and transit agencies by having security plans in place, ensuring proper security training for employees, and requiring thorough vetting for those working on the systems. Despite the fact that these mandates were in enacted eight years ago, the senators said that final actions on these requirements have yet to take place.

While the concerns voiced by officials in both the U.S. and Europe in the aftermath of this foiled plot are valid, the idea floated by some of implementing aviation-style screening measures for passenger trains is unlikely to ever come to fruition for a myriad of reasons, not the least of which is an unwillingness by the public to give up the conveniences offered by rail travel.

 “First of all, it’s just not realistic – without destroying public surface transportation – to deal with the volumes that we do on commuter trains and metros,” said Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the Mineta National Transportation Safety and Security Center at the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI). “When we do end up with high-speed trains, people have put up, in Europe, with security at the Eurostar but the problem there is that the rest of the high-speed trains in Europe are fully integrated with the local train systems. It is really intermodal and they want to be able to have people conveniently transition from an international train to a commuter train or a local train within a country to the local subway system. Therefore, you can’t take one component of your system and say we are going to isolate it from the other components.”

Jenkins added that one of the other things that is attractive about high-speed rail is the fact that it is not as burdensome as taking a plane from a security screening perspective and that making the process more onerous would only serve to turn people off from traveling by rail.  

“Can you fly from these cities in Europe, from one to another, from Amsterdam to Paris? Of course you can, but you have to go to an airport and go through all of the security. The idea of being able to get on a train that takes you from city center to city center without all of this security makes it much more attractive,” he said. “I think the resistance is not just that Americans are cantankerous and don’t like security. There are sensible arguments to be made that given the level of threats we are dealing with, the statistical risk to any single passenger is miniscule. That doesn’t mean the government, local police and systems operators should not take security measures. They are responsible to do so.”

To Jenkins’ point, statistics show that shootings onboard passenger trains are extremely rare. In MTI’s database of over 4,150 terrorist attacks and serious violent crimes recorded against public surface transportation, only four armed assaults were reported onboard trains.          

Although the incident that occurred on the Thalys train is rare, Jenkins believes that transit officials should try to learn from it and apply those lessons in addressing vulnerabilities in a logical, rather than kneejerk fashion.

“Are there some vulnerabilities that can be easily addressed or is this a matter of a relatively remote risk we’re going to continue to live with? What’s realistic here? What’s reasonable?” asked Jenkins. “If gunmen on trains were the only issue then we would say, ‘Alright, there is very little that can be done or those things that can be done require major investment and we’re not sure what the gain would be and we’re going to allocate our resources in other ways that make more sense.’ On the other hand, what we certainly have seen is not just gunmen, but terrorists with bombs and other kinds of things so the threat is a bit broader than that. And if we look at the situation in Europe, it is much easier to say it is even broader than that, aside from just rail.”

According to Jenkins, the threats facing Europe are broad as evidenced by the attack on the Paris offices of satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo in January and the shooting at the Jewish Museum of Belgium last year. These incidents really point to the need to address security at a higher level on the continent beyond just transportation systems.

In the short-term, Jenkins said that transit agencies in Europe may implement some visible measures, such as putting guards in  train stations or on trains to discourage hoaxes, copycat attacks and also reassure the ridership as part of an effort to bring the “alarm level” of people down.

“What the interior ministers who met on this issue have decided is probably a reasonable step and that is they’re going to, at least on the international trains like the Thalys train – they already do on the Eurostar between Paris and London – is ask for an ID. That would not be that obtrusive or difficult to do,” said Jenkins.

At the very least, Jenkins said that such a move would prevent people, whose names are on terrorist watch lists, from moving between countries in the European Union without any type of resistance. EU leaders have also said that they are going to try and bolster their information sharing efforts with one another, but Jenkins said he’s skeptical of their ability to do that given their track record.

“Privacy concerns in Europe are much greater than they are in the United States, there is not consensus on this issue and it took them a long time to agree to share (passenger name records) from airplanes. The U.S. pushed them hard for that because we were concerned about who was getting on planes and possibly coming to the country, but sharing data on these names is a major challenge for them,” he said.

In the U.S., Jenkins believes that rail operators could possibly expand voluntary, random screening programs at train stations. Although these checks have a modest deterrent effect, Jenkins said their real value is in providing a platform for training personnel and establishing rules and procedures. In the event that the threat level against rail targets becomes significantly elevated, transit systems will be better prepared to respond and implement these checks on a broader scale.   

About the Author

Joel Griffin | Editor-in-Chief, SecurityInfoWatch.com

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of SecurityInfoWatch.com, a business-to-business news website published by Endeavor Business Media that covers all aspects of the physical security industry. Joel has covered the security industry since May 2008 when he first joined the site as assistant editor. Prior to SecurityInfoWatch, Joel worked as a staff reporter for two years at the Newton Citizen, a daily newspaper located in the suburban Atlanta city of Covington, Ga.