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The Lingering Question of Questionable Railway Security

Rail security is an unsolved issue. Since September 11th, there have been periodic threats and subsequent upgrades in the alert level for our Nation’s railways. Its no secret that major city transit systems like NY (Grand Central Station and Pennsylvania Station), Washington DC (Union Station) and places like Boston are likely targets, especially for a suicide bomber, the release of toxins or the explosion of a dirty bomb.

Even before the Madrid train attacks on March 11th, 2004 it was clear that the busy matrix of tunnels and tracks that connects Penn Station to Queens and New Jersey was a security nightmare. With 21 tracks and 16 miles of tunnels to Queens and New Jersey, Penn Station is one of the nation's busiest. More than 750 trains and 500,000 commuters pass through the station every weekday, in addition to millions of travelers each year from Washington, D.C., and Boston. Even with an improved ability to detect intruders as well as chemical, biological and radioactive threats in the tunnels, critical upgrades of ventilation, fire standpipes, escape routes and emergency communication systems are not yet complete.

If you needed only one example of the implications of a terror attack on a subway one only has to remember the Aum Shinri Kyo release of sarin gas in the Tokyo subway system in 1995. If you wanted to find a perfect transport method for chem-bio toxins, just stand on a platform in Grand Central Station, or any subway stop in NY City, and feel the whoosh! as a train goes by.

After the Madrid attacks, the question of the safety of America’s trains was raised.

Are the trains safe? The simple answer is no, nothing is. But can anything be done to make them safer? "You can't do the things that you can do at an airport," says New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “It's a daunting challenge. We have 468 subway stations right here in New York City. It's a tremendous challenge.”

In July 2005, the minute the London bombings became known, the NY City police held the first Platoon (midnight to 8am shift) over indefinitely. Additionally, then New York Governor Pataki authorized police and law enforcement from NJ, Pa. and Ct. to ride transit into Manhattan with "full force of authority" to reassure NY'ers that the city had mobilized every resource available and Secretary Chertoff raised the Threat Alert Level to Orange for all U.S. rail and travel infrastructure. In the NYC area, Penn Station, Grand Central Station, AMTRAK Station and Port Authority had clearly visible armed guards and bomb sniffing dogs on patrol, surveillance and search of vehicles on all bridge and tunnel crossings was increased, and what was already a visible presence became more visible.

And at the same time, DHS Secretary was criticized for not doing enough on rail security and insisting that localities have a major role in protecting transit systems.

Chertoff explained the agency's focus on aircraft safety over rail and transit in an Associated Press interview, saying, "The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people. A bomb in a subway car may kill 30 people.

That brings us to the current day when it seems that very little has changed. An article that originally came from Stratfor, Rail security an ongoing threat warned of gaps in the homeland security and transportation threat assessment program. In her January 18, 2007 testimony to the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation:

Cathleen Berrick, the GAO's director of homeland security and justice issues, noted that despite the history of terrorist attacks against passenger rail systems -- including those in London and Mumbai -- the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) has yet to complete its own risk assessment of the passenger rail system in the United States. Even more to the point, the agency has not yet even finalized a methodology for analyzing and characterizing such risks.

Based on this testimony, characterized by Stratfor author Fred Burton as “couched in bureaucratic language,” it was observed that DHS had not finished efforts to come up with a framework that helps government and private-sector agencies develop a consistent approach in analyzing risks across different transportation sectors, including passenger rail. The Stratfor article went further to say:

There is little question that the U.S. passenger rail system is at risk. There are numerous reasons that terrorists consider rail systems to be an attractive target -- even without considering the factors that make it hard to protect in the United States: the sheer size of a rail system, daily volumes of passengers, and the patchwork of government agencies and private-sector security elements involved at different points along the way.

Clearly, our railways, both commuter and commercial represent soft targets for terrorists. Consider that 11.3 million passengers, in 35 metropolitan areas and 22 states, use some form of rail transit every weekday. The New York City system alone carries more than 4.6 million passengers every weekday. This makes airport-like screening systems difficult if not unfeasible. And security is further complicated by the frequent stops with passengers getting on and off at each stop.

...even a small improvised explosive device (IED) can cause mass casualties. When that metal box is placed inside a concrete tunnel, the confined space can further amplify the blast effects of the IED, resulting in maximum "bang for the buck." Moreover, there are chances of follow-on casualties as the tunnel fills with smoke and fire, causing confusion and panic among the surviving passengers. This often results in people being trampled or injured by smoke inhalation. Thus, an attack on a subway or commuter-rail car can result in a higher body count than an attack using the same IED against a crowd in another setting.

Recent numerous successful strikes (London, Madrid, Moscow and Mumbai) and yet many more disrupted and stopped. However, the problem of course is considering the options of defending against a possible attack. For those of you not familiar, take a look at the map of the New York Subway System or the Washington DC Metro System.

These vulnerabilities are further examined by a recent reports by the Council on Foreign Relations, Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat (3/12/07) and Tracking Rail Security (3/12/07)
Among the concerns raised by these two reports are that the U.S. rail system transports freight, including highly toxic chemicals. These shipments often have minimal security, even though they pass through populated areas, endangering thousands of lives.

Many of the tracks that carry passenger trains run parallel to those carrying freight shipments throughout the United States, meaning rail cargoes often travel along the same heavily populated corridors. Much of the freight presents little danger to people living near the tracks, but some does—particularly certain industrial chemicals. The deadliest of these chemicals are almost identical to those used as weapons on the battlefields of World War I, and in 2005 former White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Richard Falkenrath told the Senate these chemicals pose “the single greatest danger of a potential terrorist attack in our country today.”

Given what is described as lax security and often unmonitored railyards, these tankers represent “pre-positioned WMDs.” This raises the serious question of rail security which is noted as being quite related to chemical security. Among the measures discussed are rerouting hazardous rail cargo so it bypasses densely populated areas (which in turn creates delays and added costs). Of course none of this is to minimize the importance of improving passenger security.