HSR Security: No Need To Panic
In his remarks yesterday in Tampa, President Obama mentioned that one benefit of HSR: no need to take off your shoes in security.
Makes sense, right? Not if you’re Politico’s Josh Gerstein, who wrote about the topic yesterday. He wondered why rail security is “so much more lax” than at airports, and used a post by Rafael at this blog as an example of arguments about HSR security that “aren’t very persuasive.”
So while everyone’s still debating ridership in the other thread, I thought I’d take a look at this issue in some more depth. Here’s the Obama quote, as reported by Gerstein:
“How many people here have been on one of these high-speed trains?” Obama asked the crowd at the University of Tampa. “When you were traveling outside the country, unfortunately, for the most part. I mean, those things are fast, they are smooth. You don’t have to take off your shoes. Right? [No need to] check to see if you’re wearing the socks with no holes in them.”
What Obama is playing on here is the widespread public view that taking off one’s shoes in order to be able to board an airplane is absurd. Just because some dumbass tried to light his shoes on fire nine years ago shouldn’t mean we can never walk through security without unshoed feet again. One has to wonder just how real the threat of shoe-induced terror actually is. Instead most Americans see it as another example of “security theater” – things the TSA makes us do that are designed primarily to make us feel safe rather than actually address a genuine threat.
Obama is also recognizing that, yes, the threat posed by a high speed train and an airplane are completely different. What we learned on September 11, 2001 was that there really isn’t much difference between a passenger aircraft and a cruise missile. Aircraft are also particularly vulnerable to explosions and such, so there is plenty of reason to take care with ensuring that they are secure from threats.
But a high speed train? Rafael was absolutely right when he put it like this:
trains can’t fall out of the sky, nor can they be made to crash into buildings
Quite true. If someone hijacks a train, you just turn on the automatic train control, shut the train down, and you have a hostage crisis instead of a runaway train. Granted, a hostage crisis is a serious issue. But it’s not the same as a train barreling down the track at 220 mph under the control of a madman.
Gerstein’s response to Rafael’s argument:
However, the blog’s claims that “trains can’t fall out of the sky, nor can they be made to crash into buildings” aren’t very persuasive suggestions that there’s no real threat. It is true that Al Qaeda seems obsessed with blowing up passenger planes, but anything high profile could be a target….
I get that the lack of security-related delays is a practical advantage for rail. It’s one reason why a lot of people traveling between D.C. and New York choose the train over the plane. It’s also the travelers’ choice about how to balance convenience versus safety. But the absence of security doesn’t seem like a great selling point for taxpayers being asked or required to subsidize the network.
Certainly you don’t want to turn HSR into a target by boasting about how it has less strict security than airplanes. But one doesn’t have to create a big and unnecessary security theater system to deal with potential threats. Instead, the US needs to take cues from its European counterparts when it comes to HSR security.
Despite people who think the US is constantly under threat of terrorist attack (the reason we haven’t been attacked by overseas terrorists since 2001 is because they just don’t pose the kind of ongoing threat many believe they do), Europe actually has FAR more experience with actual terrorism than the US has. Countless terror attacks targeting transportation infrastructure in Europe since the 1970s have shown them the threat is very real. Yet their HSR security isn’t anywhere close to what the TSA operates at US airports.
Let’s cast our minds back to March 11, 2004. That morning, 191 people were killed and over 1,800 wounded when Islamic terrorists attacked the Madrid commuter rail system, the Cercanías. Three bombs went off at Atocha Station, which is also the hub of Spain’s high speed AVE trains. Damage was done and lives were lost. But the AVE trains were not targeted, and only suffered collateral damage from the attacks on the commuter trains.
One might assume that in the aftermath of the 11-M attacks, security at Atocha Station would resemble Washington National airport circa 2002. Not so. Our own Bianca, who frequently comments on this blog, traveled to Spain last month, and reported that:
we had to put our bags through an x-ray machine, but we did not have to walk through a magnetometer/metal detector.
No shoes off. No emptying pockets. No wanding.
Just drop bags on conveyor belt, walk around, pick them up off the other side of the x-ray, that was it. You barely had to slow your stride, it was such little hassle.
Remember – this is Spain, where ETA attacks are a constant threat. And this is at Atocha Station, where the 11-M bombings were focused. If Spain feels that is a sufficient level of security, why wouldn’t the same hold true for the US?
Of course, we’re a nation of gun nuts, so metal detectors are almost certainly going to be required. But adding that to x-rays of bags would basically recreate the domestic airport security arrangements of the late 1990s, which succeeded in preventing any repeat of the 1980s or early 1990s-style bombing attacks. The September 11 hijackers had to devise new tactics to get around that system, and while those tactics were effective, they are also not suitable to high speed trains, where again ATC can just shut down the system in case someone tries to use a box cutter to take control.
It’s impractical to try and screen every passenger on a system like Caltrain, or BART, or LA Metro Rail, even though the July 7, 2005 bombings in London showed that such systems could be potential targets of attack. Nor can we scan every car driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, through the Caldecott Tunnel, or on the 405 during rush hour. HSR might present a slightly greater threat level, but we already have plenty of effective tools at our disposal to deal with such threats without resorting to such absurd measures such as making people take off their damn shoes to go through security.
In short, President Obama was exactly right to cite that aspect of HSR travel as a selling point. And if Politico’s Josh Gerstein is still worried, maybe he can arrange to have the Human Target join him whenever he rides our system.