Tighten Up Mass-Transit Security


Aug 22, 2006

This commentary originally appeared in Newsday on August 22, 2006.

Plastic trash cans, eliminating lockers and more TV cameras would help in the fight against terrorism

While the foiled terrorist plot to use liquid explosives to blow up airliners bound from Britain to the United States has again focused attention on terrorism in the skies, action also is needed to increase security on a far more vulnerable form of mass transit: commuter trains, subways and buses.

The eight coordinated bombings against passenger trains in India's financial capital of Mumbai July 11 were just the most recent in a long series of terrorist attacks on transit systems around the world. In the past decade, this form of terrorism has hit cities as far apart as Moscow, Madrid, London and Tokyo. We don't know when or where, but terrorists will certainly use this same method of attack again - and the odds will likely grow as tougher security at airports makes it harder to attack planes.

A full 42 percent of all terrorist attacks between 1991 and 2001 were directed against mass transit systems, according to a Brookings Institution study. That rate reflects the inherent difficulties of safeguarding these systems as well as the potential damage and disruption that such assaults can cause.

Tightening security on mass transit is difficult because commuter trains, subways and buses must be able to move people from home to work and back quickly and affordably. And mass transit serves many more people every day than airlines: 2 million daily flying passengers, compared with 26 million traveling on trains, subways and buses.

Airport-style screening could add a half-hour or more to rush-hour commutes, and would drive many people to abandon mass transit. So would the drastically higher fares needed to pay for a major tightening of security.

Given the operational and financial constraints, what can be usefully done to safeguard mass transit from attacks? In the short term, there are several pragmatic, cost-effective measures that can be taken, many of which already have been implemented in New York by the Metropolitan Transportation Authority.

At the most basic level, all metal trash cans should be removed from stations and replaced with plastic bins on wheels. The bins can be readily removed in the event of a bomb scare, and plastic is less likely to emit deadly pieces of shrapnel should an explosive device go off in one of them.

Serious thought should also be given to removing all luggage lockers from stations, since these containers represent an ideal place to hide and detonate a bomb.

Greater use of well-placed closed-circuit television cameras should be emphasized. These systems have the potential to substantially facilitate post-incident investigations, as was well demonstrated in the case of the London underground bombings last year. The MTA is moving ahead with plans to add 1,000 more cameras to its surveillance system, although adequate monitoring of these cameras will remain problematic.

Regular testing of existing security protocols to identify gaps and loopholes would also be useful. So would randomizing and enhancing visible police patrols at stations, as the MTA has done. Retrofitting rail cars with pop-off roofs and pop-out windows to dissipate explosive shockwaves, although expensive, would certainly help, too.

Besides these measures, active civic outreach efforts - such as the MTA's "If you see something, say something" campaign - stressing the need for train passengers to quickly report suspicious behavior or packages should be implemented. In addition to posters at stations and on trains, messages should be transmitted through public address systems and regularly aired in advertisements on commercial television and radio to highlight the importance of vigilance at any mass transit location.

Finally, employee awareness education should be stressed. Rail workers should be equipped with a decision-making framework that they can apply to assess potentially dangerous and suspicious situations without having to be an expert in threat identification.

Over the longer term, new generation inspection devices to screen people and baggage, including "smart" video surveillance systems that are capable of facial recognition should be considered. But investments in these types of technologies must always be considered in light of the safeguards that can be reasonably achieved and at what expense.

Attempting to institute 100 percent security is impossible given the nature and purpose of mass transit.

Rather, the objective should be the development of a set of counterterrorist tools that are able to manage risks within acceptable levels, without making mass transit too slow or too expensive to continue attracting riders.

Peter Chalk is a terrorism expert at the RAND Corp., a nonprofit research organization.

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