This month, both the House of Representatives (PDF) and the Senate consider legislation aimed at improving security on U.S. railways. Over the course of that month, Americans will make nearly three hundred million trips on trains, subways, and commuter rails as they traverse the nation’s 160,000 miles of lightly guarded train track. U.S. reliance on railroads has increased in recent years, and some suggest that trend will only continue. Senator Frank R. Lautenberg (D-NJ) describes new legislative initiatives as an effort to “fundamentally change the way America travels” by providing alternatives to crowded roads and airports. Though railways traditionally rank among the safest modes of transport, this new Backgrounder points out that trains, both passenger and freight, represent some of the likeliest terrorist targets in the nation.
Most public concern revolves around the vulnerability of commuter trains. Bombings in Madrid, London, and Mumbai over the last three years have driven home the vulnerabilities of easily accessible mass transit systems. Since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, rail carriers have implemented a number of security measures—such as heightened police presence, closed circuit surveillance cameras, and public awareness campaigns—to help prevent an attack. But Richard Falkenrath, New York City’s top counterterrorism official, told a March 6 House hearing that an attack on New York’s subway system remains likely (PDF).
Attacks on freight trains pose a far greater menace than backpack bombs on subways. Should a tanker car full of toxic inhalants—such as chlorine gas or anhydrous ammonia—rupture in a densely populated area, some experts believe the ensuing gas cloud (PBS) could kill up to one hundred thousand people. That is a worst-case scenario, which some find far-fetched. A perhaps more plausible estimate from the Homeland Security Council remains disturbing, suggesting the death toll from a chlorine release in a major city would reach 17,500 (PDF).
In the same March 6 congressional hearing Falkenrath spoke at, Edward R. Hamburger, president of the Association of American Railroads, detailed the numerous precautions taken by the rail industry. These are not enough, says Pittsburgh Tribune-Review reporter Carl Prine in this CFR.org Podcast. In his own investigations, Prine repeatedly gained unrestricted access to large shipments of lethal chemicals, often in densely populated areas.
Passenger security needs improving too, says P.J. Crowley, a homeland security expert at the Center for American Progress. He says Congress should provide funds to sustain an even larger police presence on trains and in stations. “It takes more than money to protect everyone all the time,” write Frank J. Cilluffo and Laura P. Keith, both experts at the Homeland Security Policy Institute, in USA Today. They suggest more random, or “chaotic,” security measures could present terrorists with a harder target.