The odds of a terrorist attack on a passenger rail system in the U.S. are small . . . really, really small. That’s the good news. The bad news is that bus and rail operators must continuously bolster their defenses in preparation for an attack. They have to assume that the odds are much greater than they are.
To that end, some large transit systems are spending millions of dollars on high-technology security equipment such as chemical and biological weapons sensors. These types of investments are, of course, the exception.
In addition, spending millions of dollars on high-technology security equipment doesn’t ensure that terrorists will not be able to penetrate your system. What it does is reduce your vulnerability, probably by a small percentage. That means you’re going from a 0.0001% chance of an attack to a 0.00001% chance. Or something like that. Is that tiny additional cushion of security worth the investment?
The cost of deterrence
Some people don’t think so. At a recent conference on rail security, Tim O’Toole, the managing director of the London Underground subway system told attendees that it’s not wise to invest in “supercomplicated” — and superexpensive — technology.
With the open system that’s required in public transit to move people in a timely fashion, it’s almost impossible to significantly reduce the system’s exposure by adding high-tech hardware. Sensors to detect chemical and biological weapons sound like a good idea, but terrorists likely have already figured out a way to circumvent them.
How do transit systems reduce the chances of a terrorist attack on their buses or trains? It’s been mentioned countless times, but I’ll repeat it here anyway — by training their people. O’Toole put it this way: “Invest in people and count on them.” Training your employees to recognize suspicious behavior or packages is a critical part of any strategy to reduce the risk of a successful attack.
The other human element that will play a key role in a possible terrorist attack will be emergency response. Because it’s so difficult to prevent an attack, transit properties need to prepare an effective response. Amid all the chaos of a bombed bus or rail system, transit personnel need to provide a calm and coordinated response.
But we shouldn’t dismiss the role that hardware and software will play in the prevention of terrorist attacks. Here’s how O’Toole framed it: “Invest in technology and don’t count on it.” Technology, as it goes, isn’t a panacea but nor is it impotent. Eventually, it will be sophisticated enough to make an important contribution to the deterrence of terrorist attacks. And we’re getting closer all the time.
For example, sophisticated surveillance systems being installed in some rail stations can not only provide footage in the aftermath of an attack, but can also detect intrusions of prohibited areas, possibly helping to deter an attack. Content-analysis capabilities will continue to evolve in ways that cannot yet be predicted. Eventually, this type of equipment will play a significant role in transit security.
The human advantage
High-tech equipment, however, will never replace a highly trained and capable transit police force. It cannot duplicate the intuition and savvy of a transit police officer. Nor can it replace the eyes and ears of front-line transit operators and customers, who are in the best position to thwart an attack.
We need to prepare for the worst. Attacks in London and Madrid illustrate this. We need to maximize our security investment, coupling interests in humans and machines to most effectively thwart the desires of terrorists who most certainly are devising strategies to disrupt our transportation systems and demoralize our citizens.