Railroads have been vulnerable since the first Transcontinental Railroad was built in 1869. Then and now, teenagers armed with rocks or guns see boxcars as tempting targets. Derailment, from both deliberate acts and accidents, is a constant threat — and sabotaging trains has a long history as part of warfare.
“We’ve been doing rail security since Jesse James was robbing trains,” said Thomas L. Farmer, assistant vice president of security for the Association of American Railroads, which represents major freight carriers and Amtrak.
For a long time, the primary concern was people wanting to steal a freight train’s contents, shoot the crew or rob the passengers. The United States’ post-9/11 focus on security, however, is shining a new spotlight on other hazards surrounding railroads.
“It’s a vulnerable target,” said Charles Peña, a senior fellow at the Independent Institute, who writes on national security and foreign policy. “There are good reasons [to] be concerned about it.”
But the desire to protect the railroads, their employees and passengers must be balanced, Peña said, “by what you can really do given that you’re trying to move large numbers of people.”
Railroad security — whether for passenger rails, commuter lines or freight trains — is a complicated endeavor. The entities that own most railroads — from both the public and private sectors — have done much work, especially since 9/11, to increase security. But coordination challenges, the number of people involved and the rail network’s vastness make it a difficult task.
Although the 9/11 attacks made security experts increase planning for terrorist attacks on a train or station, terrorist attacks on rail transportation isn’t new.
“Unfortunately bringing explosives into train stations is a terrorist tactic that’s been going on for generations,” Farmer said. The attacks — in recent years in London, Madrid and Mumbai, India, for example — have generally happened outside the U.S. But that doesn’t mean the U.S. is immune.
A Complicated Problem
After 9/11, the newly created U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) focused much attention on airline travel, which was understandable, said Dan Goodrich, a research associate at the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose State University in California.
“Anything that can be put into motion — a car, bus, plane, ship — can all be used as weapons,” Goodrich said. “Air is a real issue because of its flexibility; [planes] can go literally anywhere.” It’s also easier to control access to commercial planes, so increasing security seemed more feasible. With rail and other modes of transportation, the infrastructure is much broader and more difficult to secure.
With miles of rail, “it becomes a complex issue of how to address security,” Goodrich said. “We only have a finite amount of resources.”
In addition, rail security is further complicated by the number of public and private entities involved. The federal government, state governments, counties, cities and transportation authorities can all play a role in rail transport. These entities have their own elected officials, budgets and concerns. Many also have their own law enforcement and emergency response teams. A single freight train carrying hazardous material may travel on tracks owned by different companies and through numerous jurisdictions to reach its destination. “You can see how this can get complex,” Goodrich said.
The result is that the security of rail passengers and trains is essentially a public-private partnership. “A substantial amount of effort has gone into building partnerships between federal, state and local governments and operators,” Farmer said.
Experts point to a number of avenues for increasing rail security, although they all have drawbacks.
First, screen passengers and luggage. When the government needed to increase security for airports, it increased security screenings and restricted access to boarding areas. Passengers take off their shoes, and their bags are scanned.
But more people travel on trains and subways than on planes. If you try to screen all of them, it ceases to be mass transit, Peña said. “It brings the system to a complete, grinding halt.”
Even if passengers and bags could be screened and moved efficiently, hiring all the people necessary would be expensive. “That’s a huge amount of manpower if every station has to have people who are patting people down,” he said.
Another issue is access at stations in less populated areas. “People just walk up onto platforms,” Peña said. “You don’t have control points.”
One possibility is to institute random screenings, said Lawrence Mann, a Washington, D.C. attorney who has worked on rail safety issues for 40 years. “That would at least mitigate a person thinking he can get away with it.” Major rail carriers like Amtrak could also institute screening without too many problems, he said.
There are no easy answers, however. “People are used to being able to show up and board within 10 minutes,” Goodrich said. “You have to balance these things [with] what the customer is willing to put up with.”
Second, reinforce trains. Windows of locomotives and passenger trains are required to be bulletproof, but only for .22-caliber rifles. “Major damage can be done with high-caliber arms,” Mann said.
Efforts also are under way to improve tanker cars so they’re more resistant to attacks and accidents.
Third, air condition locomotives. When locomotives aren’t air conditioned, crews in hot areas have no choice but to ride with windows and even doors open, said James Stem Jr., national legislative director of the United Transportation Union, which represents transit, rail and other workers.
“It’s impossible to secure the cab when it’s 100 degrees outside,” Stem said. “That is probably the most outrageous rail security issue today.”
Fourth, safeguard hazardous materials during transport. Much of the attention in rail security has focused on passenger trains and subway systems — with good reason.
Attacks on heavily populated passenger systems allow terrorists to achieve “casualties, damage and the laserlike attention of the international media,” Farmer said. They make rail passengers worldwide worry if such an attack could happen to them.
Attacks on freight trains also can potentially be deadly and attention-getting, especially if they hit trains transporting hazardous material through a heavily populated area.
“Throughout the country, hazardous materials are transported more on trains than any other mode of transportation,” Mann said. “There’s no real protection against someone just taking a shotgun and shooting it. That’s a major problem.”
But freight trains’ schedules and cargo are unpredictable, Farmer said, making such an attack “not nearly so easy.” Some attacks on freight trains turn out to be fairly similar to an accidental derailment — a problem, but not the sort of catastrophe that gets international headlines.
Although freight trains may not be as attractive targets as passenger trains, “the freight railroads have been very attentive to the new realities after 9/11,” Farmer said.
Within weeks of the attacks, safety and security officials assessed the risks and created a security plan. The transport of hazardous materials got particular attention, both from railroads and government.
Focusing particularly on transported material that can be toxic when inhaled, the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) created a plan to ensure that those materials are kept secure, especially in heavily populated areas.
Because securing both freight and passenger rail systems is so complex, those in charge are turning to an old strategy: enlisting the public to report suspicious activity.
“Terrorists are looking for what’s easy to do,” Peña said.
If security efforts and the sharp eyes of the public make it more difficult, terrorists are less likely to try in the first place.