Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) officials said June 8 they would begin random baggage checks at rail stations in and around Boston. The announcement came one day after the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) began the second phase of tests for screening machines used in the Washington area — part of its efforts to streamline the passenger- and baggage-screening process aboard Amtrak trains. The two agencies are approaching the problem of rail security with different methods: In Boston, the MBTA is checking baggage by hand, while high tech screening machines are used in Washington. Rail security in the United States has taken a back seat to airline security as an issue since the Sept. 11 attacks. More than $115 billion has been spent on aviation security in the more than two years since the strikes, but only $11 billion on rail security — even though more than 2 billion passengers traveled by train in 2003, compared to 594 million by air, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. Since the Madrid train bombings on March 11, the attention of both the public and private sectors is turning increasingly toward the security of the nation's passenger rail system. Efforts to improve security for the industry face several challenges:
The sheer size of the industry within the United States is one limiting factor. Millions of commuters use rail lines daily — more than 1 million in New York City alone — which makes systemic security screening a significant obstacle. Government officials hope to overcome these limitations by combining both human and technological screenings, as is seen in Boston and Washington.
Infrastructure issues also play a part. The rail system is interspersed with train stations of varying sizes — major hubs, such as Washington's Union Station or Newark/New York's Penn Station, which could be physically secured in much the same way airports are, and many smaller, unmanned way-stations, where passengers might not even purchase tickets until after boarding a train. There are indications that the bombers in Madrid boarded the targeted commuter train at such a stop. Federal authorities hope to mitigate this threat by installing sensors that can screen passengers who already have boarded — a system that will be tested by the TSA in July.
The rail industry's ability to enforce tight security at major hubs is somewhat mitigated by profit concerns. If these stations enact time-consuming security procedures, as airports have, rushed commuters might choose other modes of transportation.
Train stations are enclosed areas that are frequently crowded and often located underground — factors that increase the casualty counts in any attack. Two prominent examples are the February 2003 accident in a subway in Daegu, South Korea — where someone lit a jug full of gasoline, killing more than 130 people — and the 1995 sarin attack in Tokyo, which injured more than 6,000 people. The potential for these kinds of casualty rates will continue to make trains a tempting target for terrorists.
Coordination between law enforcement agencies is a key concern. Because rail lines criss-cross through federal, state and local jurisdictions, the potential for problems in security and intelligence-sharing is high.
Successful dissemination of information among law enforcement agencies, of course, could substantially improve their chances of detecting and interdicting terrorist threats. However, if recent past is prologue, communication between federal agencies, from them to local authorities and back up the chain, is difficult at best.
These difficulties are such that the Department of Homeland Security has labeled the TSA security plan as unfeasible for daily operations, due to the size and many variables associated with the nation's rail system. Instead, the agency recommended that the screening measures be used only if warranted by specific threat intelligence. The TSA's proposed security procedures lie well within the realm of possibility: They involve the use of X-ray equipment, bomb-sniffing technology and dogs, and random security checks. These, combined with common-sense steps — such as removing opaque garbage cans from sensitive areas — could do much to improve the nation's rail security. Ultimately, the fate of rail security lies in the execution rather than the idea. So far, the government has shown few signs that security for the rail system is an urgent priority, and it remains to be seen whether the TSA — already in a fight for survival — will be able to implement the plan on a sufficiently wide scale to discernibly impact rail security. And, as with other areas of domestic security, enhanced intelligence and countersurveillance capabilities remain among the best defenses against terrorism.