Security is the watchword for US mass transit systems

Public transit systems - particularly subways and commuter railways - have often been targets of terrorist attack. The 7 July bombings in London are merely the latest episode in what has become a horrifying catalogue of tragedies. However, US homeland security officials need to realise that more must and can be done to safeguard the security of innocent and vulnerable civilians.

Subway systems remain the single least-prepared part of the US national critical infrastructure to withstand a terrorist attack. This weakness has been commented on by many terrorism analysts as well as by those terrorists all too aware of the vulnerabilities.

Since the attacks of 11 September 2001, the US has finally acknowledged that it is locked in a struggle with determined militant elements. It has reorganised how it assesses threats and placed counter-terrorism among the nation's top priorities. The US has hardened its infrastructure and taken significant steps to reduce the opportunities available to militants. In the process, the country has also surrendered some of its most cherished civil liberties; launched a global campaign to apprehend the architects of the new terror; altered the way its citizens travel by air; and, most importantly, modified the way in which the US perceives the world. Yet it continues to leave vulnerable one of the most critical aspects of society. Like electricity, militants follow the path of least resistance. Any failures on the US's part to properly protect the home front cannot continue.

Subways are uniquely vulnerable terrorist targets. Large numbers of passengers crowd into tightly confined spaces at regular and well-known times. Subway systems are routinely located either deep below ground or else above street level. Train locations complicate emergency and rescue efforts and delay the time in which the wounded can receive life-saving treatment. Furthermore, high-explosive blasts within confined areas greatly increase casualty figures, something we have unfortunately seen in the disparity between the mortality rate at Russell Square and that of Aldgate station during the recent attacks on the London Underground. Scenarios involving the potential use of chemical, biological, or radiological agents in a subway system are even more horrifying.

The US Congress must, without further delay, immediately authorise greater funds for mass transit security, and reverse its plan to cut mass transit security funds from next year's budget. Moreover, it must take immediate action to see to it that those monies that have previously been designated for mass transit safety are immediately put to use. Until the attacks on London's mass transit system, it had been extraordinarily difficult for state and local first responders to access federally earmarked monies for mass transit security. As a result of the London bombings, the Senate Appropriations Committee will no doubt reconsider its intentions to cut one-third, or USD50 million, of the funding intended to enhance mass transit security. All US citizens should be asking their representatives why this has not yet transpired.

In response to the co-ordinated multiple attacks on London's public transport system, US Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff commented that he believes that US "transit systems are safe", adding that he would caution against increased funding for subway counter-terrorism: "I would not make a policy decision driven by a single event." Judge Chertoff's recently announced departmental reorganisation is to be welcomed, yet the above remarks should be questioned. Only two weeks after the initial London attacks, a near-exact replica was narrowly avoided.

Terrorism targeting mass transit systems has a long and bloody history. On 11 March 2004, 191 people were killed and close to 1,500 wounded in a series of co-ordinated bombings of commuter trains in Madrid, Spain. Chechen separatists have killed scores in bombings throughout Russia, and North African terrorists waged a subway bombing campaign in the 1990s that took place in Paris, France and Brussels, Belgium. We cannot treat the London attacks as isolated incidents. Knowledgeable British counter-terrorism sources have in the past identified up to three extremely serious foiled plots against mass transit targets in the years since 11 September 2001. The London bombings are simply the latest in a series of attacks on mass transit systems. Unfortunately, they will surely not be the last such incidents.

The terrible truth is that our subways are inherently vulnerable to terrorist attack. This uncomfortable fact can no longer be denied. Subways provide convenience over security for millions of users every day in the US. It would be greatly impractical to transfer security measures such as those now in place in airports to mass transit systems. Likewise, it would be impossible to ask commuters to turn up two hours in advance to undergo proper security screening. However, this is not an excuse to do nothing. We must demand greater protection from the Department of Homeland Security and call upon the US government to make mass transit security an urgent priority.

Contrary to those who argue that upgrading the security infrastructure in subway systems would take years, numerous steps can be taken today to improve the safety of the public. A greater security presence is desperately needed in US subways. Not just the heavily armed Atlas teams occasionally deployed in New York, or Washington's SWAT-style paramilitaries seen on rare occasions, but a consistent and visible presence both before and after an attack. Likewise, plainclothes security patrols must increase. Such visible security measures do contribute to deterring militants. Potential attackers instinctively seek out vulnerable targets, particularly as our societies become more resilient. Let us heed the warning from recent events, especially when we are now able to mitigate the effects of a terrorist attack on our subway and commuter rail systems.

There needs to be a greater number of surveillance cameras installed in plain sight, and all trash and recycling cans must be removed. CCTV cameras have a proven track record in helping the investigation of violent and terrorist crimes - witness the most recent developments in London. These cameras must be monitored and run from a central location; Washington, DC has begun to make efforts in this regard, yet it can and must improve. Benches in stations capable of concealing suspect packages should be replaced with wire-mesh seating that will allow security personnel unobstructed views of stations. Moreover, such replacement seating assists in limiting deadly blast effects in such a confined space.

Random baggage searches should become commonplace. The fact that they have not already been introduced on US mass transit systems can only be seen as a shortfall on the part of the responsible authorities. Opponents to such measures will argue that random inspections are comparable to searching for the proverbial needle in a haystack. This is a flawed argument: random searches are not an operational security measure to prevent attacks; rather they are a step that is proven to deter potential bombers. Raising the likely failure rate for suicide bombers intent upon inflicting mass casualties drives them to revise their plans. Such militants choose death over life; they make no alternative plans, and do not practise prudent tradecraft. The result is that they leave their co-conspirators, networks and fellow cell members unprotected, and exposed to inevitable discovery.

Explosive detectors and chemical sniffers must be installed in order to better assist those security officers tasked with protective duties. In fact, it would be highly recommended to create 'specially designated luggage cars', designed only for travellers with baggage and constructed in such a manner as to best control the effects of an explosion. Users wishing to travel in those cars - positioned at the end of the train - would be subjected to even greater security screening. It is no coincidence that London's Piccadilly Line was targeted on 7 July, as this is a route to Heathrow Airport. It is not unusual on the Piccadilly Line for bulky baggage to be stacked in great piles, with no discernable owner in view.

The recent announcement of the disabling of cellular coverage in the New York City subway system is welcome - particularly as reports begin to surface indicating that the London bombers may have used the alarm function on their mobile phones to co-ordinate their simultaneous blasts. Such measures should clearly have been enacted in March 2004, when it became obvious to investigators that the Madrid bombers employed mobile phones to detonate their explosives. London's plans to provide mobile telephone coverage throughout the Underground will hopefully come to an unceremonious end. That mobile service was restored in New York's Lincoln and Holland tunnels on 20 July boggles the mind.

It is true that 100 per cent security will always be unattainable. Yet there are immediate steps the US authorities can take to decrease the likelihood of terrorists successfully targeting mass transit systems. It will necessitate a political decision to properly defend a segment of our society that is vulnerable to mass casualty attacks and a financial commitment to ensure the safety of US citizens. This is clearly within our grasp. To do otherwise would be taking a very grave risk.

Christopher Boucek is the previous editor of RUSI/Jane's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London. He is a frequent writer on issues pertaining to mass transit security.

Christopher Boucek

Associate Fellow

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