Trains, Buses and Terror


May 3, 2004

This commentary originally appeared in The Mercury News on May 3, 2004.

Madrid-Like Bombing Possible in U.S. Unless We Take Precautions

After the March 11 terrorist attacks on commuter trains in Madrid that claimed nearly 200 lives, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security issued a bulletin highlighting uncorroborated intelligence reports about a plot by terrorists to target subways, trains and buses in major American cities this summer.

Tragically, killings on public transportation vehicles are nothing new. Only the month before the Madrid bombings, a terrorist bomb killed 39 and injured more than 100 on Moscow's Metro. In 2001, Singapore authorities discovered a terrorist plot to bomb various sites including the city's subways. We know now as a result of an arrest in 2001 that jihadists in Europe planned to detonate a bomb at Milan's central rail station.

Could such an attack happen in the United States? Of course it could, and it nearly did in 1997 when Islamic extremists planned to carry out suicide bombings on New York City's subways. A lucky tip enabled police to foil the plot.

Trains, subways and buses are ideal targets. They offer terrorists easy access and escape. Congregations of strangers guarantee anonymity.

Surface transportation cannot be protected in the same way we protect commercial aviation. It now requires nearly 60,000 screeners to check 2 million airline passengers daily. An equivalent nationwide screening system for the approximately 26 million passengers traveling on trains, subways and buses on an average day would require roughly 780,000 screeners and cost tens of billions of dollars.

But trains, subways and buses must remain readily accessible, convenient and inexpensive. The deployment of metal detectors, X-ray machines, explosive sniffers, and armed guards -- which have become features of the landscape at airports -- cannot be transferred easily to subway stations or bus stops. The delays would be enormous and the costs prohibitive, effectively shutting down public transportation systems.

This doesn't mean that nothing can be done to improve surface transportation security. Security officials in countries that have been subjected to terrorist attacks have developed some effective security countermeasures. Good security can make terrorist attacks more difficult, increase their likelihood of being detected, minimize casualties and disruption, reduce panic and reassure alarmed passengers.

Actions that can be taken without paralyzing surface transportation include:

  • More security patrols, security cameras and emergency phone boxes in rail and subway stations and on trains.
  • Deploying chemical, biological and radiological detection equipment that is already being used on an experimental basis on some subway systems. Detection must be coupled with rapid response procedures.
  • Designing vehicles and facilities to reduce hiding places, facilitate surveillance and reduce casualties by removing materials that can be turned into shrapnel or that burn with toxic fumes after an explosion. Adequate ventilation against deadly smoke, a leading killer in tunnels, must be ensured.
  • Creating safe areas to protect passengers during bomb threats when evacuation is not feasible. Facilities should be designed to make an emergency response as quick and effective as possible.
  • Carrying out exercises and drills involving transportation staff, police and other emergency responders are crucial. This was demonstrated on Sept. 11, when 60,000 passengers and 300 employees below the World Trade Center were all safely evacuated.

While all of these are good ideas, there is no single solution when it comes to their implementation. Every community needs to create a system that meets its own needs but is still affordable and practical.

BRIAN MICHAEL JENKINS is the director of the National Transportation Security Center for the Mineta Transportation Institute and senior adviser to the president of the RAND Corp. He wrote this for the Mercury News.

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