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How safe are U.S. railroads?

Published 16 May 2011

Following the revelation that al Qaeda had aspired to attack U.S. railways, security experts, the media, and lawmakers have turned their attention to improving security for American trains; in a recent interview with CNN, Brian Michael Jenkins, the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s (MTI) National Transportation Security Center of Excellence, discussed the current state of railway security, how realistic creating an airline style screening system for railroads would be, and what measures need to be taken to secure railroads; to realistically improve rail security in a cost effective manner, Jenkins urged passengers to begin taking a more active role; Jenkins also urged the United States “to be more realistic about risk”

Following the revelation that al Qaeda had aspired to attack U.S. railways, security experts, the media, and lawmakers have turned their attention to improving security for American trains.

Most recently Senator Chuck Schumer (D –New York) has proposed allocating additional funding to railway security as well as the creation of a “no ride list” that would function similarly to the airline’s “no fly list,” that is aimed at keeping suspected terrorists from boarding airplanes.

In a recent interview with CNN, Brian Michael Jenkins, the director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s (MTI) National Transportation Security Center of Excellence, discussed the current state of railway security, how realistic creating an airline style screening system for railroads would be, and what measures need to be taken to secure railroads.

Jenkins said that the U.S. railroad operators have been keenly aware for some time about the growing threat to trains following the 2004 train bombing in Madrid, the 2005 attack on the London Subway, and the 2006 commuter train attack in Mumbai.

When asked about the feasibility of screening all passengers and cargo like with air travel, Jenkins said that the system would simply be too expensive and logistically impossible.

“Passenger and freight screening would not affect terrorist attempts to sabotage the rails,” he said bluntly.

He added that “applying an aviation security model to public surface transportation will not work” because there are far too many train passengers each day.

While roughly two million people travel by air each day in the United States, “four or five times that many get on trains or subways every day” and “we would need a quarter million screeners.”

In addition, the costs to implement such a system would be prohibitively expensive.

“It costs us somewhere around $7 or $8 dollars per passenger for airline security. Imagine adding that cost to a subway or commuter train fare. It would destroy public surface transportation,” Jenkins said.

Finally, Jenkins said that a railroad passenger screening program would cause unacceptable delays.

“Passengers may be willing to wait 15 to 20 minutes to be screened for a flight to a distant city,” he said. “They would not be willing to add that to their daily commuting time.”

 

“Moreover, the waiting lines at the security checkpoints themselves would make tempting terrorist targets.”

In order to realistically improve rail security in a cost effective manner, Jenkins urged passengers to begin taking a more active role.

Jenkins also urged the United States “to be more realistic about risk.”

He said, “Americans have come to expect a risk-free society–100 percent security, which is unrealistic.”