Inherent vulnerability: the terrorist threat to the railways

As we are reminded constantly, accurate and timely intelligence is pivotal in preventing terrorism by answering four questions: what the terrorists will do, where they will do it, when the attack will happen and who will be involved. Indeed, to identify, apprehend, put before the courts and ultimately convict those who use the threat of action to "influence governments or intimidate the public"1 is a goal to which all counter-terrorism agencies aspire. Unfortunately, the reality is that even when intelligence is available, it is not always accurate and it is not always timely. As the UK Security Service has noted, in an open and democratic society the initial advantage is always likely to reside with the terrorist.2 Also, as the recent assassination of the President of Chechnya illustrates, this advantage may even extend to states where openness and democracy are not as well established.3

Within the railway environment, the British Transport Police (and its predecessors) have managed the threat and the reality of terrorist attack for more than 120 years.4 From the relatively crude 'infernal devices' of Fenian bombers in the late 19th century, to the long-delay electronic timer-controlled bombs of the Real IRA, explosive devices, and the fear their potential use generates, have become intermittent but recurring themes associated with travel by public transport. Looking beyond the Irish Republican threat, increased publicity surrounding chemical or biological weapons, so-called suicide bombers and the shadowy spectre of Al-Qaeda also resonate within the railway community.

The large and transient population of rail passengers (more than five million individual journeys are taken in London each day), extensive tracts of unprotected real estate and the close-coupled nature of the railway network each present significant risk-management challenges. This inherent vulnerability is a feature exploited repeatedly, as recent events in Russia and Spain illustrate. Against an imprecise threat, it is simply not feasible to protect railways or similar open targets against all forms of attack.5

That is not to say that nothing can be done. The very openness of the environment, in addition to being an acknowledged limitation, provides an opportunity to harness the routine vigilance of the public, rail staff and patrolling police offices alike. In the fight against terrorism, vigilance has always been a watchword. Active vigilance in the railway environment is encouraged through poster campaigns and the broadcast and print media, as well as more direct approaches from police officers and railway staff. However, the process of maximising the security dividend from these millions of pairs of eyes is directly proportional to the quality of the risk communication message to the rail-travelling public. While the concept of 'alert, not alarm' is somewhat clichéd, the adverse consequences of what is recognised by Otway and Wynne as the "arousal reassurance paradox"6 are highly relevant. As was learned in the early 1990s, asking the travelling public to look for bombs, when what is actually needed is closer supervision of public space, can lead to an increase in risk - both perceived (heightened levels of anxiety) and real (for example, unnecessary evacuation leading to 'normal' accidents).7

Whether an unattended item is declared suspicious will depend upon decisions made by the finder. The way that person arrives at a decision is, in turn, dependant upon a number of factors, including their knowledge of the environment; their training; their previous experiences; and their own perception of risk. While the travelling public is ideally placed to identify an unattended item, as a group it is poorly qualified to determine whether such an item is genuinely 'suspicious'.

Since more than 250,000 bags are 'lost' each year, unattended items are a common sight in the railway industry. Therefore, those best placed to make the judgement call are those who know the environment intimately - railway staff or officers of the British Transport Police. Since the mid-1990s, the specialist training provided to these two groups has led to a significant reduction in the number of station evacuations caused by unattended items. 8 (The ratio in 1992 was almost 1:5. Today it is less than 1:100.)

As with unattended items, anonymous bomb threats - whether received by telephone, letter, e-mail or, most recently, 'blue-jacking' (that is, the unauthorised use of wireless communications between PCs and mobile telephones) - are rarely associated with impending terrorist attack. The recent extortion demands in France, where the authorities were notified of bombs on the line of route, almost as a statement of intent, are perhaps notable and rare exceptions to the usual pattern. However, as guidance issued by The Home Office notes, "calls constitute a threat…and they must always be treated seriously".9

Foxing the hoaxers

Following an explosion at Victoria railway station, London, in 1991, and the subsequent large number of malicious hoax threats, the British Transport Police pioneered the use of a computerised database to assist with the process of identifying which threats were viable and which were simply designed to cause disruption. Since the early 1990s, approximately 8,000 threats relating to over 10,000 locations have been assessed and categorised. Of these threats, fewer than 1% were deemed credible and brought about an evacuation. Of that very small number, almost half resulted in an explosion or the discovery of a terrorist bomb.

Nevertheless, given the nebulous provenance of most threats and the apparent intention of the instigator to confuse and mislead, the possibility of getting it wrong is ever-present. Indeed, as a report published by the government during the IRA's campaign of the 1990s noted: "If the day does come when a decision proves to be faulty, we should all be slow to criticise". 10

It is also appropriate here to draw attention to the consequences of the social amplification of risks associated with terrorism. It has been noticeable for some time that during periods of intense media reporting, the frequency of bomb threats and reports of unattended items tend to rise. Chart 1, for example, illustrates the number of telephone bomb threats received during March 2004. Chart 2 illustrates the overall trend since 2001.

As Chart 1 illustrates, the week following the 11 March Madrid bombings continued this trend. Analysis undertaken by the British Transport Police suggests that in terms of threats against rail transportation, the phenomenon only became a feature of significance following the publicity given to the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo nerve gas attack in Tokyo.11 Until that point, most acts of terrorism outside the UK did not affect the number of threats received in England, Scotland or Wales.

An American perspective

In the US, the executive overview of a report concerning the protection of surface transport against terrorism and serious crime notes that "with no obvious checkpoints like those at airports", public transportation is anidealtarget.12 Superficially, establishing a security culture based upon the aviation model sounds attractive - the philosophy of 'delete plane: insert train'. However, to impose an airport-style regime at all railway stations is not viable and, in any case, mass screening in itself is neither a direct police responsibility nor an efficient use of already stretched resources. Conversely, targeted screening does offer an effective risk management opportunity. An extension of established arrangements for dealing with unattended items, where rail staff identify a concern and then trigger a rapid police response (such as that provided by the British Transport Police's Special Response Unit) provides an appropriate starting point.

This approach allows the most effective deployment of police resources. It is also an area where - for the first time - the British Transport Police has attracted additional counter-terrorist funding from the government via the Department for Transport. This approach to risk management appears to strike the correct balance between reducing vulnerability (without causing unnecessary disruption) and not fostering a siege mentality. The ultimate aim is to create an environment within which terrorists cannot operate successfully, but within which normality is disturbed as little as possible. As the 2001 report issued by the Mineta Transportation Institute notes, somewhat pragmatically: "Physical security by itself does not prevent terrorism, but good security can displace risk, pushing terrorists towards still vulnerable but less lucrative targets where their actions are likely to cause fewer casualties."13

When managing risk, no event should be seen as inevitable. However, by the same token, it would be imprudent to assume that lessons from previous incidents are always learned, that procedures are always followed, that equipment never fails or that the law of unintended consequences will not apply in a given contingency. Users of rail transport in the UK may take comfort from the knowledge that extraordinary measures are in place (although not all are in the public domain), and that the appropriateness of those measures is reviewed regularly and amended accordingly.

In conclusion, it will always be difficult to defeat those who adopt the tactics of terror if the four questions mentioned above cannot be defined with a high degree of reliability. However, this realisation should not be taken as an indication that nothing can be done. While it is important not to overreact to abstract fears, it is also vital not to ignore obvious vulnerability.

Adrian Dwyer, MSc, MIExpE, is a force counter-terrorism risk adviser to the British Transport Police


  • Stationery Office, The (2000) Terrorism Act 2000, London: The Stationery Office Ltd
  • Security Service, The (1998) MI5: The Security Services, London: HMSO
  • Strauss. J and McLaughlin. D (2004) Builders 'Planted bomb that killed Chechen leader', The Daily Telegraph, 11 May
  • Appleby, P. (1996), A Force on the move, Malvern: Images Publishing
  • Appleton, B.(1992) Appleton Inquiry Report, London: HMSO
  • Otway and Wynne, quoted in: The Royal Society, Risk: analysis, perception and management, London: The Royal Society
  • Perrow, C. (1999) Normal Accidents, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press
  • London Underground Limited (2001) 'HOT stuff', in On the move, April 2001, Issue 64
  • Home Office, The (1999) Bombs: Protecting people and property, London: Home Office Communication Directorate
  • Appleton op cit
  • Dwyer, A.S. (2003) Managing Involuntary Risk, proceedings of IDER 2003 Conference, London, 14-15 October
  • Jenkins, B. M. and Gersten, L.N. (2001) Protecting public surface transportation against terrorism and serious crime: continuing research on best security practices, San Jose, CA: Mineta Transportation Institute
  • ibid

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