Subway safetyFive ways to make subway stations and cars safer

Published 1 April 2010

Several new technologies and practices can make subways and mass-transit stations significantly safer; among the latest technologies: shields, vests, and blankets made from Demron, a fabric blend that blocks chemical, biological, and nuclear agents; the shields and vests would be used by first responders, while blankets would be thrown over radiation victims to keep them from irradiating others; another blanket — the Hi-Energy Nuclear Suppression Blanket — is designed to be placed over a dirty bomb about to go off; it traps chemical, biological, and nuclear agents and reduces by more than half the distance they can spread

Mass-transit systems in many countries responded to the Moscow subway attack on Monday by heightening security. Experts say that such knee-jerk reactions only expose the weakness of subway security. Security on mass-transit systems should be a daily priority, like in airports, they add, suggesting that subway stations do not have to be soft terrorist targets.

The Christian Science Monitor’s Suzi Parker writes that commuters’ expectations that public transit take them a few miles with minimal inconvenience makes it impossible to implement in subways the strict screening that exists in airports.

The need for subway security is great. More than 10.2 billion trips were taken on public transit around the world in 2009. Yet, Parker notes, in the first-ever quadrennial security review released by the DHS last month, subways are mentioned only once in the 108-page report. As outlined in that report, the most severe threat facing any transportation system is a weapon of mass destruction such as a nuclear device or a biological weapon.

Common-sense steps and new technologies can make mass-transit safer. Here are five ways:

1. Gaming technology. Some mass-transit systems, especially in Europe, are using so-called “gaming technology” to turn intelligence into preventing terrorist attacks.

Gaming technology uses an array of hardware, software, and fast processor speeds. It records a scene in real time using 360-degree photography and immersive video — allowing for recording of every direction at the same time. It also often includes global positioning systems (GPS) and inertial guidance systems (IGS) for tracking and positioning information.

If the computer picks up on a possible situation — say, a passenger has a dirty bomb or a bioweapon — a series of actions will occur. The train’s driver will be notified, the entrance and exits doors may electronically be opened or closed depending on the situation.

2. PROTECT. Just as companies are providing next-generation surveillance technologies for trains, they are also trying to transform security in stations. One example is Program for Response Operations and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism (PROTECT), which consists of hardware and software that can provide automated detection of a terrorist attack.

The exact suite of technologies in PROTECT is not made public. Security experts say it contains biological and chemical sensor technology, video, wireless communications, and computer software to simulate the spread of potential contaminants.

Parker writes that Washington, D.C. has the program in a dozen stations and Boston has also implemented a permanent program. Chicago, San