Management & Operations

On the Alert: Rail Security in the Age of Terrorism

Posted on June 1, 2004 by Janna Starcic, Associate Editor

In the post-Sept. 11 world, particularly after the March rail bombings in Madrid that killed more than 200 passengers, the focus for transportation agency police in the U.S. changed almost overnight. Officers who once faced local challenges such as fare evasion, vandalism and petty crimes now have a broader, more deadly foe — terrorism. Responding to this dilemma, the federal government and transportation agencies across the U.S. are securing rail systems by combining new technologies, increasing manpower and implementing public awareness programs. Testing for explosives
After Madrid, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) developed a list of security directives for passenger and rail operators to comply with, ranging from removal or replacement of station trash cans to using bomb-sniffing dogs during inspections. Also included in security initiatives was a measure to assess new explosive technologies in a pilot program, the Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot (TRIP). Phase I of the pilot, launched by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA), involved the screening of rail passengers and baggage at the Amtrak/MARC rail station in New Carrollton, Md. During the program, which took place in May, passengers were required to walk through a portal, GE’s EntryScan3, which uses ITMS (Ion Trapped Mobility Spectrometer) technology to trace elements of explosives. When a passenger walks through the portal, it releases puffs of air that carry a sample of particles given off from the heat of the passenger‘s body, known as the human convection plume, to a detector above. Once these particles reach the detector, their molecules are positively or negatively charged to become ions. The equipment can then measure the ions present to determine if there is a match. “Each particular substance’s molecules have their own time-of-flight signature,” says James Bergen, director of public relations for GE Ion Track, producer of the EntryScan3. “We have a broad list of explosives that we can detect, including plastic explosives.” The whole process takes between 12 and 14 seconds. The device, originally designed for aviation security, is primarily installed in nuclear power facilities and is priced at $132,000. In addition to passenger screening technology, the TSA also tested baggage-screening equipment, L-3 Communications Security and Detection Systems’ MVT (Multi-View Tomography) machine during Phase I. The MVT, which costs between $500,000 and $600,000, measures mass, density and atomic number to determine the presence of explosive materials. “No one has tried to deploy this type of equipment in a rail station before,” says L-3 Director of Global Communications Douglas Stevenson. “It was a learning process for the TSA and for ourselves to see if [the equipment] would be applicable and lend good results.” A total of 8,835 passengers and 9,875 pieces of baggage were screened during the test, with an average time of less than two minutes to wait in line and move through the screening process. The TSA conducted two more phases, which studied the checked baggage screening process and the use of explosive detection equipment on a railcar in transit. Increasing manpower, sweeps
While the federal government continues to test new technologies, transportation authorities across the nation are continuing to put in place their own security initiatives. Hardening of infrastructures, (such as tunnels and bridges), increased fencing, lighting, installation of advanced video surveillance systems and intrusion detection systems are some of the equipment-related upgrades agencies are making. Like equipment, manpower is also a crucial element of a security program. Increasing the number of officers patrolling and conducting sweeps of rail stations and railcars are key changes being made by transit properties post-Madrid. New Jersey Transit (NJ Transit), increased its police force by 72%, says NJ Transit Police Chief Joseph Bober. In addition to increasing manpower, NJ Transit’s Bober changes officers’ daily assignments to help prevent complacency. “Changing what they do every day keeps them crisp and alert.” Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) also altered its security plan to include an increase in manpower. The system bolstered the number of police officers on patrol during rush hour by assigning administrative officers to stations and trains to supplement staff. In addition, the system increased the frequency of its sweeps and added train-to-train and railcar-to-railcar patrols, says WMATA Police Chief Polly Hanson. The frequency of station patrols by special machine-gun-carrying response teams accompanied by explosive-detection canines was also stepped up. Using bomb-sniffing dogs
Not stopping with an increase in staff, operations like the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) are also expanding the size of their explosive-detecting canine units. SEPTA, which had a canine corps even before Sept. 11, presently has eight dogs, two of which are trained in explosive detection, says James Jordan, SEPTA’s assistant general manager for public and operational safety. “We are in the process of training two more dogs in explosive detection, and we hope to train two more that we plan to buy.” SEPTA’s specially trained unit of Belgian Malinois (relatives of German shepherds) are, according to Jordan, becoming the police dog of choice. The dogs, costing an estimated $5,000 each, are trained to respond to chemicals found in explosives. During explosives sweeps, canine teams walk through stations to check any areas where a bomb may be placed, such as a newsstand. “When you are establishing a canine corps, you have to have the resources to commit to it,” Jordan says. “The dogs need a place where they can run and exercise. Our dogs even have health insurance.” Agencies that have canines, or are looking into it, should establish a relationship with a local veterinary hospital, adds Jordan. Training and education
Transit agencies have stepped up their training and education of officers, as well as all employees system-wide in anti-terrorism strategies. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) has a full-time trainer to educate system operators on terrorism tactics and what to look for, says MTA Chief of Transit Police Dan Finkelstein. “We are taking every step we can to make people feel secure, to give them the skills and belief that things are being done here,” he says. “We’ve trained hundreds of police officers in metro rail security familiarization, “ says WMATA’s Hanson. Officers are taken on track walks and are informed about all of the components of a metro station, its railcars and where security and safety features are located. Training for NJ Transit police officers includes participation in suicide bombing exercises and different techniques for responding to them. These specialized exercises were part of a two-day seminar sponsored by NJ Transit in June in conjunction with Picatinny Arsenal, site of the New Jersey-based Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center. During the seminar, NJ Transit participated in a live exercise involving a staged attempted suicide-bombing of a bus. All the exercises were conducted with outside agencies within the region. Practicing these methods and coordinating efforts between agencies is key, Bober says. Training also included exercises of how to extricate people from a bus, how to respond to a railcar incident and the dangers involved, such as the overhead catenary wires. “We want to let those outside agencies, those first-responders know what they are up against,” he says. NJ Transit also offers specialized behavioral training to its officers called BASS (Behavioral Assessment Screening System) to help them identify possible terrorist behaviors. Certain suspicious behaviors cited by the program include wearing a heavy coat in the summer or acting nervous, Bober says. Boston’s Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA), which began training all of its officers in counter-terrorism measures and weapons of mass destruction in 1997, performs a minimum of four drills a year on a variety of situations, says Police Chief Thomas McCarthy. Drills conducted include a train collision, chemical release and a subway tunnel fire. The MBTA also trains officers using virtual reality technology. It allows the officer to — in virtual reality — deal with a weapon of mass destruction incident, hostage-taking situation and other scenarios in a mapped-out version of South Station, the MBTA’s largest intermodal transportation facility. The virtual-reality training program, called Total Immersion, was developed in association with the Federal Transit Administration, the Federal Aviation Administration and Veridian Corp. Officers using the training equipment are immersed in an incident and given voice prompts by a virtual trainer. The program tests and evaluates the officer’s response and offers constructive criticism. “We’ve found it to be tremendously valuable in helping our younger officers in their decision-making process,” says McCarthy. Besides providing training to employees, the MBTA realized that it needed to provide security awareness training to the subway’s hundreds of vendors, who sell everything from flowers to candy, in the subway system. McCarthy says it is important not to overlook training this segment of the system. “[The vendors] were grateful to receive the training.” Public awareness campaigns
Emphasis on instilling security awareness by the public is another crucial strategy being employed by transit agencies. “We started a campaign to educate the public and the transit community that their awareness in security-related matters needed to be raised,” says Juan Rodriguez, chief of police for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). DART developed a bilingual pamphlet that is distributed to the community alerting passengers to what they should be looking for while they use the system and what to do and who to call in case they encounter a suspicious person, package or activity. In addition to its award-winning public awareness campaigns, WMATA developed a special emergency preparedness insert with the Washington Post’s Express, a free newspaper used as an additional outreach to passengers. The insert, designed to fit in a briefcase, broke down the schematics of bus and rail evacuations for passengers. “We look for every opportunity to get information to the public,” says Hanson. Suspicious activity, packages
As a result of public and employee awareness campaigns, the number of calls received by transit systems reporting suspicious behavior and packages has skyrocketed. “There’s a higher recognition of the need by the public to be vigilant,” says Toronto Transit Commission’s Deputy Manager Lynn Hilborn. “I think that’s reflected in the increasing number of people coming forward to our employees to report suspicious activity.” The MBTA’s suspicious call activity has soared in the wake of the Madrid bombings. Approximately 95 suspicious activity calls were received during March, a 228% increase over the average from the previous seven months. Based on the data, it was evident that the Madrid bombings had a profound impact on the way riders and employees reported activity. May 2004 produced 125 calls, the most reported in the analysis, which may have resulted from the launch of the system’s Transit Watch public awareness program that month. The campaign also coincided with a new system policy that subjects passengers to carry-on item inspections. Portland’s (Ore.) Tri-Met developed an information card, based on an idea used on London’s Underground system, to help employees assess a suspicious package situation. “We give this card to every employee, which gives a list of particular criteria to assess whether a suspicious package is a threat,” says Tri-Met’s Tim Garling, senior manager of field operations. When employees encounter a suspicious package, they must determine whether the package or object is hidden, whether it’s obviously suspicious and whether it’s typical of what can be normally encountered on the job, according to the criteria. “This allows us to put [suspicious packages] into context and approach them accordingly,” says Garling. “We still have to run our system day to day, and we don’t want to shut the system down when we don’t need to, but we do want to be conservative and prudent in responding to these situations.” Post-Sept. 11, Tri-Met experienced a rash of suspicious package incidents, which still occasionally occur, but now are dealt with in a better, more organized manner, he says. Security at a cost
Despite grants from the DHS to bolster transit system security, it is not enough to do all that is necessary to protect rail. “All of us have limited funds, so with the money we have, we have to hit home runs,” says Garling. “We have to put our funding where it’s going to do the most good.” It is also essential for rail properties with limited funding to make internal assessments of risk and make investments in both people and technology in ways that are smart and cost-effective. Systems must determine and rank the value of their assets as well as measure how vulnerable those assets are Garling adds. “We just don’t have the money to fortify our entire line or to put people on every train.” WMATA’s Hanson agrees, “The funding priorities are not there, and, unfortunately, may not be there until something happens.”

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