Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat

Rail Security and the Terrorist Threat

Backgrounder: Experts say more should be done to reduce risk on both passenger and freight rail.

March 8, 2007 4:25 pm (EST)

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High profile terrorist attacks on rail systems in Madrid, London, and Mumbai provide troubling illustration to persistent warnings that the U.S. public transportation system is a vulnerable target for terrorists. But passenger rail is not the only, and perhaps not even the gravest concern. Much of the 160,000 miles of railroad track in the United States transports freight, including highly toxic chemicals. These shipments often have minimal security, even though they pass through populated areas, endangering thousands of lives.

Passenger Rail

Each year Americans make more than 3.5 billion trips on intercity trains, commuter rails, and subways. On a given day in New York City, more people pass through Penn Station than all three major airports servicing the region combined. The abundance of passengers, combined with the need for easy access, makes securing passenger railways a daunting task. Absolute security can never be achieved, and experts caution against extreme security measures, which they say would disrupt how transportation systems function while offering no guarantee against attack.

In an attempt to balance security and accessibility, rail companies have taken measured precautions to help prevent attacks. These include random searches of passengers and baggage, increased presence of security officers and bomb-sniffing dogs, increased video surveillance, removal or hardening of trash cans so they cannot hide bombs, and encouraging passengers to report suspicious activity. But though these measures preserve passengers’ easy access to trains, they would be unlikely to foil a determined terrorist cell.

In light of this inherent vulnerability, many rail companies have sought to bolster their ability to react to emergencies in order to minimize the impact of an attack. This includes emergency planning, hiring and training emergency personnel, and purchasing emergency equipment such as radios. By mitigating the potential impact of a terrorist attack, experts say, rail companies could discourage some terrorists from targeting them.

Improving Passenger Rail Security

Though security professionals see trains as some of the likeliest terrorist targets, P.J. Crowley, a homeland security expert at the Center for American Progress, explains: “On passenger rail, there’s a limit to what can be done.” Some experts believe existing precautions on most railroads already approach that limit, but Crowley suggests increasing police presence in stations and on trains could further diminish the risk of attack. The problem, he says, is that local governments usually don’t have the money to sustain such a force.  

In lieu of additional manpower, security experts suggest an element of randomness could help thwart terrorist plots by presenting a dynamic target. Frequent, unpredictable police presence and random searches—like those implemented on the New York City subway following the 2005 London bombings—have the potential to deter or disrupt an attack. Random searches avoid the civil liberties issues raised by profiling based on race, gender, or age. They also ensure that every passenger has a chance of being searched, dissuading notions that, for instance, female suicide bombers are less prone to security screening.

Some in Congress have become frustrated by the financial roadblocks in the way of increased security measures. House Homeland Security Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) has decried a system that sees nine dollars spent on aviation security for every penny spent on shoring up railways, but many people disagree. “A commercial airliner has the capacity to kill 3,000 people,” Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff once told reporters, “A bomb in a subway car may kill thirty people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”

Some security analysts argue the best way to ensure the safety of American railways, as well as the myriad other easy targets in the country, is to focus efforts on counterterrorism investigations and intelligence operations. “The best way to prevent a terrorist attack is to stop terrorists before they can strike,” writes James Jay Carafano in a recent Heritage Foundation memo. Indeed, perhaps the most serious plot against an American passenger train—a plot to bomb the Herald Square subway station—was foiled by a yearlong undercover operation by the New York Police Department.

Freight Rail

Many of the tracks that carry passenger trains run parallel to those carrying freight shipments throughout the United States, meaning rail cargoes often travel along the same heavily populated corridors. Much of the freight presents little danger to people living near the tracks, but some does—particularly certain industrial chemicals. The deadliest of these chemicals are almost identical to those used as weapons on the battlefields of World War I, and in 2005 former White House Deputy Homeland Security Adviser Richard Falkenrath told the Senate these chemicals pose “the single greatest danger of a potential terrorist attack in our country today.”

Hazardous chemicals travel on railcars in ninety-ton pressurized tanks. What little security exists along their route tends to be lax, and at times tanks sit unmonitored in rail yards for days at a time. Should one of these tanks rupture—either from a terrorist attack or an accident—the results could be catastrophic. Fred Millar, a rail security lobbyist and former member of the Washington, D.C. local Emergency Planning Committee, likens the shipment of chemicals through America’s biggest cities to “pre-positioning weapons of mass destruction.”

Dr. Jay Boris of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., told the City Council that the worst-case scenario for that city could result in up to a hundred thousand fatalities. A video from his laboratory simulates the spread of a toxic gas cloud over three major U.S. cities. A more conservative 2004 Homeland Security Council report (PDF) estimated that a ruptured chlorine gas tank in a densely populated area could kill as many as 17,500 people and injure an additional 10,000. In addition to the dead and wounded, tens of thousands would have to evacuate, causing widespread panic. Nancy L. Wilson, the Association of American Railroads’ vice president for security, calls Boris’ projection “pure fearmongering” and suggests the Homeland Security Council model would require perfect conditions. Wilson, who speaks for the rail industry, says a more plausible scenario might result in hundreds dead, not thousands.  

Securing Rail Freight

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) has 415 inspectors who ensure that rail freight conforms to federal regulations (PDF) for transporting hazardous materials. Those regulations require rail carriers to implement security plans, including special training for their employees. Carl Prine, an investigative reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, says FRA audits since 2003 show many companies have yet to conform. In researching his own report, Prine gained unfettered access to rail cars holding toxic chemicals in several U.S. cities.  

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the Department of Transportation (DOT) offer a list of voluntary security practices for hazmat carriers, including criminal background checks for employees, regular training drills, and designating a liaison to government emergency response agencies. Many believe these measures should be mandatory; Senator Frank Lautenberg (D-NJ) described the federal government’s approach to the issue as merely “window dressing” (WashPost). The rail industry says it implemented most of these measures before the government issued its recommendations. “We have the best safety record of any transportation method in the United States,” Wilson says. “[After 9/11,] we identified our vulnerabilities and made significant changes to our operations.”

One proposed measure championed by Fred Millar and others calls for rerouting hazardous rail cargo so it bypasses densely populated areas. In 2005, the District of Columbia became the first of several cities to enact legislation banning rail carriers from transporting hazardous chemicals through the city’s center. That ban has yet to take effect due to an unresolved legal appeal by CSX Transportation, the primary rail carrier in Washington. Rail companies argue that rerouting would prove costly, though experts note the cargoes in question account for less than 1 percent of rail freight. However, major cities often produce or consume these chemicals, in which case rerouting is not an option.

Though rerouting may be appropriate in some circumstances, Stephen E. Flynn, the Council on Foreign Relations Jeanne J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow for national security studies, explains, “When you do start diverting, you are talking about delays and increased costs. Some of that’s worth it, but what’s important to remember is that some of these chemicals are very important to our daily lives.” For example, oil refineries and water treatment plants use dangerous chemicals to produce the gasoline and drinking water Americans rely on.

Flynn says rail companies need to improve their communication with local officials in places through which they ship dangerous chemicals. “Fire chiefs don’t want to show up and have to guess what they’re confronting.” This is among the voluntary measures recommended by DHS and DOT, but Flynn says the rail industry has resisted because effectively sharing this information can prove costly. Not so, argues Wilson. The rail industry provides lists of the top twenty five most dangerous chemicals that travel through a given community over the course of a year, she says. Companies could easily provide car-by-car information on a daily basis, but local officials have no interest because they fear becoming overwhelmed with information.

Wilson says rail carriers have taken other measures to ensure local officials have adequate information. “The railroad industry, often working with chemical companies, trains more than twenty thousand first responders [about chemical hazards],” she says. The rail industry also has its own intelligence center, which examines classified government reports for potential threats to railways, and can quickly communicate with the appropriate rail workers when danger is imminent.

Inherently Safer Technologies

Experts agree that any solution to rail freight security must address the hazardous chemicals themselves. “In my thinking,” Crowley says, “freight rail, for all intents and purposes, is an element of chemical security. You can’t separate the two.” Reducing the need for some of the most dangerous chemicals reduces the risk of their release, either by accident or sabotage. Some chemical companies have begun opting for less hazardous alternative chemicals: At a nominal difference in cost, water treatment facilities can use liquid bleach in place of chlorine and refineries can replace hydrofluoric acid with the less lethal sulfuric acid. Inherently safer technologies (ISTs), as they are called, play a major role in efforts to secure U.S. chemical facilities as well.

Many companies and municipalities make these changes on their own, but the federal government has done little to encourage them. “These are not railroad issues,” Wilson says, “The government needs to step up to the plate.” Crowley says requiring implementation of ISTs would not work, but “government can use carrots and sticks to force the private sector to adapt.”

More on:

Terrorism and Counterterrorism

Homeland Security

United States


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