Protecting rail passengers, with lessons from airport security

Many Americans have looked to fixed-rail modes of transportation such as intercity trains, subways, and light rail systems as key to addressing America’s transportation problems.  As has been reported in the Occasional Planet and in many other publications, exciting innovation is occurring in the world of rail travel and fixed rail provides opportunities for easing metropolitan and inter-city transportation.

One of the major advantages of trains over airplanes is the ease of boarding.  You can still do with trains what you could pre-September 11, 2001 with airplanes: go to the terminal, purchase a ticket, and board.  But how long will this last?  If more and more Americans use rail transportation, will trains become targets for would-be terrorists?  Apparently there are some who think so.  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported this past July 4:

Don’t be too alarmed to see stepped-up security on MetroLink or Amtrak trains in St. Louis.

During the past week or so, Metro and Amtrak officials have alerted their passengers that they may encounter canine teams and uniformed law enforcement officers.

“This is not in response to any sort of threat or risk,” Amtrak spokesman Marc Magliari said last weekend. “This is something we are doing around the country more and more. I think our customers are going to see this more and more often as they travel around our system.”

The surge team was in St. Louis for an undisclosed number of days, Magliari said last Sunday. The dogs are brought in to detect explosives on arriving and departing Amtrak trains.

This stepped-up security corresponds with the holiday weekend — a time when more people are out and about. Metro is expecting big crowds this weekend and will have extra trains for people attending Fair St. Louis.

This weekend, Metro — along with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and local police agencies — will patrol the transit system. The operation goes by a clunky name: Visible Intermodal Protection and Response. And this weekend isn’t the first time it has been in effect. The teams are on the system a few times a year.

We should not be surprised that officials are taking steps to try to ensure more safety on rail travel.  What we should be concerned about is whether or not these officials learn from the way in which security has been instituted at airports.

At airports such as Lambert International in St. Louis, travel is down more than 50% since pre-September 11 days.  While part of this is attributable to a lagging economy, much is due to passengers’ unwillingness to endure the delays, aggravation, probing, and at times invasion of privacy that occurs in going through security to terminal gates.

As railroad officials increasingly address security issues, it is important that procedures be reassessed.  Two things are clear: (1) regrettably, we may need more security with trains, (2) airport-type procedures would drastically undermine an attempt to generate a renaissance of rail travel.

What is unclear is what different procedures would work.  Fortunately, we now have an opportunity for a “do-over.”  The post-September 11 procedures were put in effect under emergency conditions; there was very little time for thought and none for debate.

There has to be a better way to address security issues for fixed rail while not taking the fun out of riding the train.  If we don’t mandate serious studies of how to address these questions now, we will be caught in the jaws of the same instant procedural changes that occurred after September 11.  We now have an opportunity for forethought; let’s use it wisely while we can.