Homeland Security Theater

Apr 16th, 2009 | Posted by

HEADS UP: More on President Obama’s strategic plan for HSR this afternoon.


Remember ye olde threat level chart and the “chatter” that mysteriously reached a crescendo every time the previous administration wanted to change the subject? Ah, those were the days. Of course, nothing last longer than a temporary measure, so air travelers still have to subject themselves to ritual humiliation every time they want to board a plane. Next up: full body scanners based on terahertz lasers. And, being government employees, TSA officers will have no interest in anyone’s privates. Except

By contrast, travel by train remains a very civilized affair from the passengers’ point of view. Usually, you just board, sit down, stow your bags and show your ticket to the conductor when he/she asks for it. True, Amtrak has been conducting sporadic random searches on platforms for a year now, but that’s about it. Like most railways around the world, it had previously kept its visible security measures to an absolute minimum.

The reason for the apparent lack of security at train stations is fairly simple: trains can’t fall out of the sky, nor can they be made to crash into buildings. Even if he could reach the driver’s cab, a would-be hijacker could not force him to go to a different destination, because the automatic train control system – if present – will force the train to stop before it can run a red light.

So, No Worries Then?

Instead, terrorist attacks based on bringing a device on board a train have tended to target crowded subways and commuter rather than long-distance trains in a perverse effort to maximize the carnage, though terrorists in Italy have in the past set bomb timers to explode while a regional train was traversing a tunnel (h/t to Devil’s Advocate).

Examples include the Aun Shinrikyo sarin release on a Tokyo subway train in 1995, the Al Qaeda bombings in Madrid in 2004 and London in 2005 and the Islamic terrorist bombings in Mumbai in 2006. Chechen separatists are suspected of multiple suicide bombings on trains in Russia in recent years.

Another type of terrorist attack is directed against busy station halls, e.g. by neo-fascists (h/t to Devil’s advocate) in Bologna in 1980 and ETA’s foiled attempts in Spain on Christmas Eve of 2003. The venues of the Mumbai attacks of 2008 also included a train station.

The above list is not exhaustive, just intended to underline that trains and train stations have indeed been targeted by terrorists in a number of countries in the past. Recently, Spanish state airline Iberia has complained that RENFE’s AVE passengers are still not subjected to the same level of scrutiny as its own, in spite of past terrorist attacks against Spanish trains by both Al Qaeda and ETA. Meanwhile, RENFE’s market share on the busy Madrid-Barcelona route has increased at the airlines’ expense. In other words, Iberia is complaining about the supposedly unfair competitive advantage trains still enjoy in terms of the customer experience. It’s entirely possible that some US airlines will talk up security concerns once they start losing market share to HSR on medium-distance routes like SFO-LAX.

In 2007, a PhD student in Australia researched SNCF’s security for the TGV system and identified weaknesses related to passenger and baggage screening. Note that Eurostar does perform passport checks and requires check-in, e.g. using an e-ticket with a bar code on it. In addition, passengers have to go through metal detectors and run their bags through x-ray scanners, just like they would at an airport. The railway has also hired outside security personnel to supplement its own staff. Premium fare passengers are asked to reserve just 10 extra minutes to pass through security, everyone else should arrive half an hour early. These procedures are a reflection of the fact that the UK is not a signatory to the Schengen convention, compounded by the strategic importance of the Channel Tunnel.

The bitter irony is that high speed rail systems are actually hardly ever the target of attacks based on devices smuggled on board. Meanwhile, security for the local commuter trains and subways that provide connecting transit for HSR remains comparatively lax – scanning every person and bag would severely constrain their capacity. While no politician or rail operator would ever dare say so, implementing the homeland security theater so selectively may actually deliver no more than marginal system-wide benefits. It may make the general public feel safer, but in reality it just shifts some risk from one type of train onto others.

You can always argue that doing something is better than doing nothing, but perhaps rigorous screening of every passenger and bag for HSR only isn’t the best way to spend the limited security dollars available to rail operators. Amtrak’s concept of random spot checks could deliver greater security at lower cost and inconvenience to passengers, provided it applies to anyone on any type of train operated by any company, on railroad property or loitering just outside it. In practice, that would mean replacing railway security staff with regular TSA or police officers. They would already have the legal authority to enforce checks, so attackers cannot just beg off and try again at some other time.

Infrastructure Surveillance

Some readers may consider anything less than the measures already in place at airport as inadequate. After all, back in 1983, Carlos the Jackal did plant a bomb on a TGV in France, killing three innocent people. However, afaik there haven’t been any bombings on board high speed trains since, even though some now routinely carry over 1000 passengers at 300 km/h. The reality is that life is risk and, terrorism is a fact of life most people around the world are resigned to living with. They assess it in relation to other risks, e.g. accidents on the road or on the home. The US population may not have reached the same conclusion yet because it has mercifully suffered relatively few terrorist attacks to date. Sadly, there is no such thing as perfect security, nor is the price for anything approaching it worth paying.

More recent attacks against long-distance trains have tended to focus on the rail infrastructure instead, especially on the tracks, e.g. in Palo Verde, Arizona in 1995 or Russia in 2007. Some (attempted) attacks are suspected to have been perpetrated by terrorists, others by saboteurs (e.g. rogue elements during a strike), extortionists (e.g. disgruntled ex-employees) or simply vandals (e.g. misguided teenagers). In other cases, both the perpetrators and their motives remain unknown.

Again, this list is not meant to be exhaustive. Rather, my purpose is to highlight the simple fact that rail networks are huge, yet a small amount of explosives or even just some concrete slabs can be enough to derail a train. The resulting casualties can be minimized by choosing very stiff train designs with articulated frames, e.g. products from Alstom or Talgo. However, the primary objective should always be to make it as difficult as possible to trespass onto the tracks in the first place.

That means tall sturdy fences/sound walls plus video surveillance of the tracks along the entire route, plus a train control system that will force any trains approaching the site of an identified (potential) problem to perform an emergency stop. These measures make it more difficult to gain access to the tracks, easier to detect a breach of security and less likely that an attack will succeed. An important fringe benefit is that mentally confused or suicidal persons as well as livestock and wild game will all be less likely to wander onto the tracks.

In locations where HSR tracks run in close proximity to legacy tracks, these measures should be extended to them as well, perhaps with automatic gates at freight spurs. Video surveillance of the entire right of way means the HSR infrastructure operator may well be able to detect a minor derailment of a freight train before the its engineer does and take appropriate action. This capability could be enhanced by adding microphones and is worth discussing with e.g. UPRR, since they cited their trains potentially fouling an adjacent HSR track as a safety concern.

The downside is the cost of implementing and maintaining all of these measures on the entire network. Fortunately, ever-improving software is reducing both the overheads and the risk of human error through partial automation. CHSRA has already budgeted for this in the scope of the engineering work to be done for the California network (see p6):

“The line will be fenced and equipped with intrusion detection equipment that can detect persons, animals or debris entering the right-of-way and linked to a central train control center.”

In addition, road overpasses will need to be fenced off. Typically, railway security operations are tied in with those of law enforcement and when appropriate, those of intelligence services as well. It’s difficult to know how many lives anti-trespass and surveillance measures have already saved. What is certain is that they are almost completely transparent to passengers – which is as it should be.

  1. TomW
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 05:25
    #1

    I find it odd hwo no-one ever talks about how highways (especially bridges) are potentially prime terrorist targets. Imagine what a well-place device on the Golden Gate bridge or East Los Angeles Interchange could do.

  2. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 06:12
    #2

    @ TomW -

    it would be difficult for a would-be terrorist to plant one or more explosive devices at a busy bridge or freeway interchange. Someone would probably catch them red-handed.

    That said, there have been accidents involving commercial vehicles carrying flammable materials in the Channel Tunnel, at the MacArthur maze in Oakland etc. that have resulted in significant economic damage.

    At this point, I’d be as concerned about some unhinged teabagger taking his/her Faux-news induced foaming at the mouth to the next level, Timothy McVeigh style, as I would be about foreign terrorists.

  3. anonymous
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 07:37
    #3

    Is is of course one of the great weaknesses of this 800 mile project, that protecting the rails is virtually an impossible task.

    Certainly causing major damage to relatively frail tracks as compared to a bridge like the Golden Gate makes the job of a terrorist much easier.

    The Obama plan was just released without any funding details. The major change seems to be that there are now 10 corridors (area) eligible for a piece of the pie.

  4. Michael J.
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 07:46
    #4

    FYI the ‘heads up’ link at the top is broken….

  5. Andrew MacDonald
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 08:07
    #5

    The FRA website has their strategic plan up now too:

    planNote that in the plan they talk about revising safety standards for HSR!

    Also, it looks like the first round of grants will mostly go to “ready corridors.” All that CAHSR will be eligible for is EIS/EIR work.

  6. Christopher Parker
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 08:20
    #6

    I think that high-speed rail security is in the same category as any other major public facility.

    Tom mentions how easy it would be to target highways. I agree, Rafael's skepticism aside. Just this morning I was listening to two high school students talking about how they were running down I-91 at night and hiding every time a car went by.

    It would be easy to target gas stations, shopping malls, big office buildings . . . etc, etc . . .

    But I don't want to live in the society where everything is locked down, nailed down. I'd even say it's worth dying for to have that kind of freedom.

    I also must point out that the threat of pre-mature death from McDonald's is vastly more than the threat from terrorists (400,000 Americans die every year from diet and exercise related issues). In fact we face a great many threats that make terrorism quite insignificant in comparison: smoking, highway accidents, hospital spread illnesses, drug & alcohol related deaths, homicide, suicide, even falling (which kills 13,000 Americans a year). In fact more Americans are killed every year by law enforcement than were killed in 9/11 and the Oklahoma City bombings.

  7. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 08:41
    #7

    @ efe -

    sorry, I had to delete your comment at 9:17am because it wasn’t in English.

    @ Michael J -

    thx, fixed.

  8. ladyk
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 08:45
    #8

    I know of no system in the world where hundreds of miles of tracks have been completely shut off and/or covered with intrusion detection / video surveillance systems. With a system length of 800 miles how many (tens of) thousands of cameras and sensors would be required? Of course there are detection systems in place elsewhere in the world at critical junctures such as the channel tunnel, bridges, stations etc. But to expect a sealed-off area of that size is in my view unrealistic. It’s also probably prohibitively expensive. You might as well seal the Southern border which doesn’t really work, either. As long as people want to go somewhere in a large area they will find a way. In contrast to the border, very few people will want to go near the tracks. So complete grade seperation, some fencing / sound barriers, policing and public awareness should be enough.

  9. Devil’s Advocate
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 08:46
    #9

    Just a correction. The bombing at the Bologna station in August 1980 wasn’t by the Red Brigades, but rather by neo-fascist terrorists. In any case, add to the list also the bombing of long distance intercity trains with time bombs set off to explode inside long tunnels. Several incidents of that sort occurred in the 1970s and 1980s in the long tunnel under the Appenines mountains between Florence and Bologna. If there are long tunnels along the HSR in California, that could definitely be a concern. Currently the High Speed trains traveling between Florence and Bologna have agents coming on board in one of the two cities often with explosive sniffing dogs, before embarking on the trip through the tunnels under the mountains. They do spot checks trying to match bags with passengers (and if you look middle eastern prepare to open your bags as well). That tactic is probably not going to be 100% effective, especially against suicide bombers, but that presence alone seems to have been a deterrent. The last bomb in that stretch of the italian HSR exploded in 1985 (around Christmas, I remember).

  10. BruceMcF
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:13
    #10

    Andrew MacDonald said…
    Also, it looks like the first round of grants will mostly go to “ready corridors.” All that CAHSR will be eligible for is EIS/EIR work.

    Look more closely. The TBT train box would have a case to qualify as a “project with independent utility”. Key requirement yet to be fulfilled is that the applicant (TJPA) must have a written agreement with the key stakeholders (which would certainly have to include the PCJPA and CHSRA).

  11. Brian Tyler
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:14
    #11

    Like it or not we’re not a nation of HSR, yet. I support the idea of security if it can help people feel safer, AND allow for inter-modality between airports. Imagine if you could clear security and get your boarding pass before boarding the train to make a connecting flight. My site, Switching Modes aims to discuss topics such as this.

  12. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:25
    #12

    @ Devil’s Advocate -

    thx, fixed.

    @ Brian Tyler -

    in Europe, you can check your bags at certain train stations and they will be forwarded to baggage handling at the airport at which you make the intermodal connection.

    However, I’m not aware of any system that permits passengers to go through security before boarding a train and then continuing straight to their airport gate without an additional security screening.

    Neither do I know of any trains that have screening equipment on board. That concept could make secondary airports (e.g. Ontario, Palmdale, perhaps Castle near Merced in the California context) much more attractive as it reduces time from door to gate.

  13. Christopher Parker
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:47
    #13

    Making people “feel” safer is very different from actual safety. And I disagree that security does make people feel safer — I think it reminds people of terrorism and danger when really that isn’t much of a danger at all. Disorder makes be feel more vulnerable and so low-level criminality/graffiti, trash and mess, broken things make people feel more under threat, but police and TSA can themselves create disorder sometimes.

  14. ladyk
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 09:57
    #14

    @Rafael, Brian

    An addendum. I remember this long report I once read about airport-rail-city connections and services with all those examples from around the world from Shanghai to Europe and North America. Unfortunately, I can’t remember where on the internet I stumbled on it :-(.

    Anyway, I remember the report said that such check-in and baggage forwarding services don’t receive much usage and have been curtailed or modified. For instance, you could check-in and drop off your baggage at Cologne and Stuttgart station for flights from Frankfurt but now there is simply a check-in/drop-off counter at the Frankfurt airport station though you can still check-in at Cologne and Stuttgart.

    Also, apparently passengers prefer the flexibility of getting the tickets by themselves and choosing the most suitable train ride from/to the airport station.

  15. jim
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:14
    #15

    The ROW could have cameras ( monitored in real time by operations/security just like at the casinos) place along the entire length. in the stations basic security procedures – document check – metal detector – can be implemented fairly easily as the HSR platform access will be seperate and secure from the rest of the station. In addition, just as amtrak is doing now, more officers and dogs will patrol the trains. As a side note I have to say that I have flown several times in the few years and have never experienced any delay or hassle gong through airport security with the exception of palm springs when my DL was expired. i know at SFO the do a fantastic job of getting people through.

  16. jim
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:15
    #16

    side note – Obama was talking about CA hsr today – briefly

  17. Rob Dawg
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:25
    #17

    “The line will be fenced and equipped with intrusion detection equipment that can detect persons, animals or debris entering the right-of-way and linked to a central train control center.”

    Priced just the 1800 miles of cyclone fence recently? I could be wrong and would appreciate a reference but I haven’t seen a security cost breakout for the corridor.

  18. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:33
    #18

    @ ladyk -

    one of the reasons the intermodal connections are not all that popular in Europe is that you can now get to so many places directly by high speed rail. For example, Cologne-Paris is doesn’t require a flight anymore.

    Note that United Airlines offers GroundLink, a broad range of intermodal connections from Paris CDG via TGV. That only works because the HSR station is just a people mover trip removed from the airport terminal. Note that this is a prerequisite for using the same IATA code for both the airport and the train station, so the trip shows up in flight search engines as having two legs rather than a less desirable three.

    In California, that will hopefully be the case at Palmdale, Ontario, perhaps even at Castle Airport near Merced. It won’t be the case for LAX, SJC, FAT, SMF and probably not for SFO either.

    Lindbergh Field will have an intermodal terminal with all of the regional and statewide train services, but the intent is not to use them as feeders into the airport. Instead, the objective is to get passengers headed to California destinations served by HSR to avoid using the airport. It’ll be interesting to see if San Diego county residents will be prepared to use HSR + Ontario for trips on planes too large to land at Lindbergh Field.

  19. bossyman15
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:40
    #19

    Jim @ April 16, 2009 11:15 AM

    Link or it didn’t exist.

  20. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:52
    #20

    @ Rob Dawg -

    not sure how you get to 1800 miles, the whole network is 780 miles long. Times 2 equals 1560 miles.

    For example, Volume 2 Chapter 4 of the Bay Area to Central Valley Final Program EIR/EIS specifies on p3 line item 7 under the heading Earthworks and Related Items (Caltrain 1 is SF TBT to 4th & King, Caltrain 2 4th & King to Millbrae):

    Fencing (Both Sides of R/W)
    unit: km
    unit price ($): 101,733
    quantity Caltrain 1: 0.00
    item cost ($) Caltrain 1: 0
    quantity Caltrain 2: 19.95
    item cost($) Caltrain 2: 2,029,570

    Wayside Protection System
    unit: km
    unit price ($): 67,144
    quantity Caltrain 1: 2.50
    item cost ($) Caltrain 1: 167,859
    quantity Caltrain 2: 22.58
    item cost($) Caltrain 2: 1,516,104

    Note that fencing is not needed for the DTX or the tunnels next to the four existing ones for Caltrain.

    Bottom line: fencing on both sides of ROW + trackside surveillance hardware = $217,723 per mile. For the fully built-out system, that comes to about $424 million or roughly 1% of total construction cost.

  21. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:53
    #21

    @ bossyman15 -

    the 11-minute video of the President’s remarks will be embedded in this afternoon’s post.

  22. mike
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 10:56
    #22

    @Rafael/TomW

    I don’t know how hard it would be to target a bridge. What would happen if a guy like Tim McVeigh drove his U-Haul truck onto the GG Bridge, loaded with a few thousand pounds of fertilizer bomb, and detonated it right next to one of the suspension towers? I have no idea, but I sure wouldn’t want to be on the bridge when it happened. There’s no way that CHP can screen every vehicle that travels on the bridge.

  23. jim
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 11:27
    #23

    at bossyman- there wasn’t a link – i saw it on tv not the web. It does exist.

  24. Bianca
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 11:28
    #24

    What would happen if a guy like Tim McVeigh drove his U-Haul truck onto the GG BridgeRemember that Tim McVeigh parked that truck and walked away before detonating the explosives. Anyone who tried to get out and get off the bridge would get nowhere- they are already watching the Golden Gate closely for jumpers. Anyone trying to ditch a truck mid-bridge would attract a lot of attention. (For starters, from all the traffic backed up behind a stopped vehicle.)

    Now, a suicide bomber is a lot harder to stop. But that is the think about security- if someone is willing to die to accomplish their plan, it is very much harder to stop them. And really, the whole point of living in a free society would be lost if we were to implement the measures needed to stop suicide missions.

  25. mike
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 11:55
    #25

    @Bianca

    I was generally assuming suicidal intent, but honestly I bet a terrorist could have a reasonable chance of escaping the blast if he (or she) wanted to. Suppose there was a 3 minute timer on the bomb and he had a bicycle with him. Obviously he takes the keys with him, and likely breaks the shift lever so you can’t get the truck out of park. To avert catastrophe, CHP would have to arrive in less than 90 seconds, ascertain the situation in less than 30 seconds, commandeer a large vehicle to try to push the truck away in less than 30 seconds, and push the truck away from the suspension tower in less than 30 seconds. That’s going to take a lot of luck.

    Meanwhile, it’s unlikely that anyone would stop the terrorist biking away quickly in the western bike lane. Most people just have no idea what to do in these types of situations. For instance, there was a horrible case in the Central Valley last year of a guy who beat a small child or infant to death at the side of the highway, and only one person (unsuccessfully) even tried to stop him…everyone else just looked on in horror.

  26. Rafael
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 13:22
    #26

    @ mike -

    I appreciate your point, but my intent was to focus on rail security. This may not be the appropriate forum for spelling out in detail novel ways to blow stuff up.

    Fwiw, the Golden Gate bridge is a suspension design, which means it is a lot more flexible than you might think. For example, the lateral displacement of the center span during a gale in 1951 was twenty-four feet (!), still well within tolerance. The design also features a lot of static redundancy.

  27. Andrew Bogan
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 15:56
    #27

    It is noteworthy that Obama joked today about “not having to take your shoes off” with regard to benefits of HSR. Sounds like airport-style security is (happily) very unlikely.

  28. Alon Levy
    Apr 16th, 2009 at 21:03
    #28

    Where do they get the cost of $100 per meter of fence from? It sounds excessive – it implies it takes two and a half man-hours to erect a meter of fence even at union wage; at market wage, make that five.

  29. Spokker
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 00:26
    #29

    I don’t want to see airport style security on trains. If that’s what’s going to happen I would never ride another train again.

    The security dramatics don’t really work. And if I’m going to get blown to bits I might as well get blown to bits and not have to deal with airport style security.

  30. Rafael
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 05:58
    #30

    @ Alon Levy -

    the fence material isn’t free. Besides, this is one aspect they shouldn’t skimp on. I’d say heavy gauge wire and 8′ tall, minimum.

  31. Alon Levy
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 07:27
    #31

    The fence material isn’t that expensive, either. I’m not saying they should skimp, but I am saying that if the cost estimate here is excessive, maybe other parts of the project have overblown costs, too. The project does cost more per km than comparable HSR projects around the world, even after subtracting the costs of tunneling under Pacheco and the Tehachapis.

  32. mike
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 14:43
    #32

    $100 per meter doesn’t seem like it would be a big deal. Entire system (including spurs) is around 1,000 km, so you have 2,000 km of fencing. That works out to $200 million on a $45,000 million system. Sounds pretty reasonable.

  33. Alon Levy
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 16:15
    #33

    Mike: my concern isn’t that fences will cost too much, but that everything will.

  34. Rafael
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 16:35
    #34

    @ Alon Levy, mike -

    I’m sure that pretty much all the numbers are padded a little to provide some additional hidden contingency fees. The fencing is just 1% of the total cost, at this point there’s little value in optimizing that one aspect. The really sharp calculations will only come when vendors have to compete on the bases of the completed project-level EIR/EIS in open tender.

    Btw, 780 miles is more like 1250km.

  35. Alon Levy
    Apr 17th, 2009 at 22:46
    #35

    If the costs are deliberately bloated, then the contractors are likelier to offer higher bids for the same work. This will just transfer money from the State of California to the contractors. It’s good for stimulus, but bad for getting the project done.

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