The threat of terrorist attacks on U.S. passenger rail systems remains a critical concern in the wake of last July’s coordinated bombing of the Underground subway and a doubledecker bus in London.
In response to the attacks, many transit agencies have upgraded their security programs, some with the deployment of additional personnel, including bomb-sniffing dogs; others with investment in security-related equipment such as video surveillance. Still others have upgraded their access-control capabilities and phone communication systems.
According to the Government Accounting Office, a survey of 32 transit systems showed that 29 of them had added or upgraded their video surveillance systems for security purposes and 23 had installed access-control devices to sensitive areas. Twenty-two had banned trash receptacles from public areas.
But the need for an upgraded security program in passenger rail was clear even before the attacks in London and Madrid.
Between 1998 and 2003, there were 181 attacks worldwide on trains and rail-related targets such as depots, ticket stations and rail bridges, resulting in an estimated 431 deaths and several thousand injuries.
Introducing a national rail security act last May, Rep. James L. Oberstar (D-Minnesota) noted that the U.S. government spent $4.4 billion on aviation security, but only $115 million on rail and transit security, even though five times as many people take trains as planes every day.
Getting the best payback for the limited funding available for security enhancements has been a core test for transit systems. This article discusses some of the ways that counterterrorist strategies have been implemented by transit properties and governmental agencies.
Ground test for air marshals
In mid-December, the federal government increased its involvement in surface transportation security by moving teams of U.S. air marshals into the transit arena.
The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) deployed air marshals, as well as bomb-sniffing canine teams, in six cities — Los Angeles, Houston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. — for a five-day test.
TSA officials said they are expanding the role of the marshals to develop their capabilities outside of air travel. Part of Visible Intermodal Protection and Response (VIPER) teams, the air marshals were scheduled to patrol Amtrak’s Northeast Corridor, rail lines operated by the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority, bus stations at the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County in Houston and buses at the Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority, the Maryland Transit Authority in Baltimore, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority and the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.
At press time, the results of the counter-terrorism efforts were unavailable, but we’ll report on them in an upcoming issue.
TSA advises flexibility
Robert Jamison, deputy administrator of the TSA, says more needs to be done to prevent terrorist attacks of the magnitude that struck London last year and Madrid in 2004.
In an Oct. 20, 2005, statement to the House Subcommittee on Economic Security, Infrastructure Protection and Cybersecurity, Jamison said the London bombings and other transit attacks throughout the world have “demonstrated the need for a new strategic approach to transportation security” based on flexibility and adaptability.
Jamison said that history is an unreliable guide to predict a terrorist attack. “We must protect ourselves against people with no known affiliation to terrorism.” He added that the ability to find weapons and common explosives is still necessary but not sufficient. “We must enhance our ability to recognize suspicious behavioral patterns and demeanors to identify people who may have devised a new means to attack our transportation systems or passengers,” he said.
Interestingly, Jamison also focused on the need for the protectors to be as unpredictable in their patterns as the assailants. “We must create uncertainty and an element of randomness in security operations in order to disrupt terrorist planning and attempts,” he said.
Jamison also called for greater information sharing among transportation sectors. “Not only will we work more closely with stakeholders ... we will put a renewed emphasis on sharing intelligence, capacity and technology with other law enforcement, intelligence-gathering and security agencies at every level of government,” he said.
Taking the next step
Around the country, transit systems are bolstering their antiterrorism programs using a variety of strategies.
The Maryland Transit Administration (MTA), for example, recently held a three-hour security response exercise at the Camden Yards Transit Station in Baltimore. It involved a thorough sweep of the transit station, platform, inner storage and electrical rooms, two light rail trains, a commuter rail train and some parked vehicles.
What was interesting about this security sweep was the amount of cooperative effort. Part of an MTA program called Operation ZEUS (Zone Enforced Unified Sweeps), the drill included Baltimore City Police, Maryland Transportation Authority Police, Amtrak Police and the TSA.
Over the past several months, the MTA has conducted more than 100 Operation ZEUS drills. “Each drill enhances the officer’s performance and teaches us ways to become more efficient and proficient in the way that we deal with homeland security issues,” said MTA Police Chief Douglas DeLeaver.
Digital eye in the sky
At New Jersey Transit, planners were strongly influenced by security needs as they designed the Secaucus Junction, a 320,000-square-foot, multilevel rail transfer station that is rigged with 220 video surveillance cameras at a cost of $1.5 million.
The $450 million station, located in Secaucus, N.J., between New York Penn Station and Newark Penn Station, opened its doors in September 2003, becoming the first large-scale U.S. transit station to open in a post-9/11 world.
The 220 cameras are integrated with 16 digital video recorders that can hold more than 7 terabytes of data, about 90 days’ worth. The data can be accessed on personal computers using a wide area network.
The system can be programmed for a variety of uses through its content-analysis capabilities. For example, if loiterers are a common problem, the system, manufactured by NiceVision, can be set up to indicate the presence of persons where they should not be. Transit personnel can then view the area and determine the cause of the alarm.
A similar content-analysis feature is used to detect illegally parked cars in sensitive areas. The software system can also be set up to trigger an announcement that parking is not allowed in the area.
Integrated railcar security
Video surveillance systems are commonly installed on railcars to deter crime, alert transit personnel of problems and make recordings for possible use in court.
ALSTOM Transport has designed systems that can use a wide area network to communicate large amounts of data from/to its railcars to external systems. The information includes security data from closed-circuit TV cameras, as well as vehicle location, passenger information, entertainment applications and operational and maintenance diagnostics.
Through the wide area network, the information can be distributed directly to rail operations management, infrastructure management or to the Internet, PDAs or mobile phones, according to Patrick Dube, product marketing manager for ALSTOM Transport Montreal, the Passenger Information and Security Worldwide Center of Excellence of ALSTOM.
Dube says the video surveillance system allows the operator to monitor what’s going on in each railcar. “The operator can switch between cars and between cameras,” he says. Through the wide area network, the images can also be viewed in real time by the control station.
Dube says railcars can also be equipped with “help points” (emergency communication intercoms) that are patched to the operator or the control center. “Each car can have four or more intercoms,” he says. “If, say, a pregnant woman needs assistance due to an emergency, she can talk to the operator using one of these help points.
“The key is to integrate the entire system and ensure that it works in harmony,” Dube says, adding that the technology can be installed in any type of rail — metro, commuter, intercity, very high speed and light rail. “And it’s modular and scalable, meaning that it’s geared for customization.”
Japan embraces alert system
In Japan, transportation officials in December adopted a three-tiered rail security alert system similar to the Department of Homeland Security’s advisory system.
The Land, Infrastructure and Transport Ministry installed the system partially in response to the bombings of London’s subway system last July. It will affect all of Japan’s 200 rail operators.
Under the new system, Level One is a normal precaution; Level Two means that a threat has been received; and Level Three is imposed after a terrorist attack occurs.
The response to each level has not been specified. Actions that could be taken for a raised alert include increased patrols and security sweeps.