Steve Dunham’s Trains of Thought

Return to the home page

Return to Transportation Security Topics

Photo by Steve Dunham
on Railway Security

By Steve Dunham. From The Weekly Homeland Security Newsletter, 17 February 2006. Copyright 2006 Analytic Services. Reproduced with permission.

Public transportation was under assault by terrorists long before 11 September 2001. More than 200 attacks took place worldwide from mid-1997 through the end of 2000.

Because of the history of attacks on public transportation, notably in Britain, where the London Underground was repeatedly a target for the Irish Republican Army, transit system managers have long been aware of transit’s vulnerability. Even so, the 11 September 2001 attacks focused even more attention on security. Railways tend to be at the center of—and sometimes the target of—terrorist attacks.

During rush hour, a subway train may be carrying over a thousand people, and an explosion, derailment, or biological or chemical attack in the confined space of a tunnel or underground station holds the potential for high casualties.

Mainline U.S. railroad passenger cars (not transit vehicles such as subways and trolleys) are less vulnerable: their rugged construction tends to prevent fatalities in all but the worst wrecks, but they have been the targets of terrorism just the same.

To defend railways against terrorism, the tools are there, as well as the experience, both in America and abroad. Best practices within the transit industry are being shared and examined for implementation where appropriate. Many systems, particularly the larger ones, have had longstanding efforts to combat terrorism. Although to some extent their efforts are reactive, there is emphasis on preparing for the unexpected.

John J. Haley, a managing principal of Booz Allen Hamilton, said that it is necessary to acknowledge the open nature of transit; the right balance is to recognize the limits of technology while promoting innovation, which may come in the form of policies and procedures rather than technology.

Freight traffic is also at risk. “Terrorists may seek to endanger the population by attacking trains carrying hazardous or nuclear materials,” noted William C. Thompson of Jacobs Engineering Group in a January 2002 presentation to the Transportation Research Board, and he pointed out that railroads are “major carriers of hazardous materials.”

“Terrorists may seek to disrupt essential governmental shipments of military equipment by attacking trains or routes essential to that traffic,” he continued. “Terrorists may seek to disrupt the US economy by disrupting commercially essential shipments.”

Immediately following the 11 September attacks, America’s freight railroads jacked up security. The Association of American Railroads created teams to look at physical assets (bridges, tunnels, control centers and dispatching centers), critical lines that may be used for defense purposes, information technology and communications, operational security, and hazardous materials. Tightened security is a limited thing on something as expansive as a railroad, however.

Narrowing the focus, DHS is assessing nine rail freight corridors in metropolitan areas, according to the TSA’s Emilie Guerin. The assessments include information gathering, inspection trips, onsite review, freight rail hazard analysis, and tabletop exercises. Risk is ranked by hazard, system security, access control, and en route security.

At the Railway Age Railway Security Forum and Expo in Washington, DC, last month, Tim O’Toole, managing director of the London Underground, offered lessons from the July 2005 bombings his system suffered. Although these lessons come from a large urban transit system, they could assist the industry and the entire field of homeland security:


Annabelle Boyd and John P. Sullivan, “Emergency Preparedness for Transit Terrorism,” Transportation Research News, May–June 2000, p. 14.

Steve Dunham, “Mass Transit Defends Itself Against Terrorism,” Journal of Homeland Security, March 2002.

Steve Dunham, “The ‘Oh’ Police: Transit Police and Counterterrorism,” Journal of Homeland Security, July 2002.

Steve Dunham, “Securing Rail Freight,” Journal of Homeland Security, February 2003.

Steve Hirano, “Staying Focused on Rail Security,” Metro, January 2006.

Brian Michael Jenkins and Larry N. Gersten, Protecting Public Surface Transportation Against Terrorism and Serious Crime: Continuing Research on Best Security Practices (San Jose, CA: Mineta Transportation Institute, 2001), pp. 67–72.

Transit Security Handbook, John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, 1998.

Recommended Emergency Preparedness Guidelines for Rail Transit Systems,” John A. Volpe National Transportation Systems Center, 1985.

William C. Thompson, “Railroad Infrastructure Security” presentation, Transportation Research Board, 14 January 2002.