Mass transit security - an impossible challenge

11 July 2005

by Humphrey Hudson

LONDON Deadly bomb attacks in London raise again the question of how to protect mass transit systems, but there appears to be no easy answer, either in the short or medium term, industry experts say.

    Today it seems that no affordable and effective technology exists to monitor the movements of hundreds of thousands or millions of people as they travel daily in cities of the developed and developing worlds.

    For many, the airline industry - both for passengers and cargo -has begun to set a sort of global de facto security standard. But the airline business is quite different from moving people by rail, subway or bus. Access can be tightly controlled, the numbers are far fewer, identities can be checked, passengers and cargo can be scanned and movements to and from airports traced.

    It would be simply impossible to deal with the crowds moving by mass transit systems in the same way as airline travellers, because to do so would bring a modern economy to its knees in a short space of time.

    Although many companies promise solutions to the question of transportation security, none seem to offer an answer which could come anywhere near tackling in the foreseeable future those needed for a mass transit system.

   By some estimates, airlines have been spending around $10 billion a year on security since the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, a figure which can be justified by the fact that there have been no major successful hijackings since then.

    But the airline industry is fearful that any attack on transportation will see it come under pressure to introduce more and more regulations, simply because aviation is a high-profile area.

    Calling, as some US legislators have done, for 100 percent screening of all cargo carried on passenger aircraft may make good politics but it is doubtful that it would make a great deal of difference in practice, and it would also require a considerable amount of funding.

    The combination of the high safety levels of modern aircraft combined with the robust security checks required of air travellers mean "you're probably safer on a plane than on a bus," said Larry Coyne, chief executive of Coyne Airways, who has been closely involved with security at The International Air Cargo Association (TIACA).

    This does not mean airline security is infallible but it does now appear to quite effective. "Where the world may have gone wrong is that a huge effort was put into protecting aircraft and air transport, but not enough attention was paid to other transport modes ... it may have become more attractive to go for softer targets," Coyne told Vigilo Risk.

    "If you're a terrorist faced with the risk of body searches and scanners (when travelling by air) but none of those are found on surface transport, it (ground transport) becomes more attractive as you have a lower risk" of being intercepted.

    And increased security should also be introduced for areas where people gather in large numbers such as football stadiums, shopping malls and theatres.

    No doubt some ways of limiting attacks on mass transit systems can be introduced. These include designing rail cars and facilities to limit the physical damage caused, training staff to become vigilant, increasing security staff and introducing CCTV cameras, while almost certainly much more use should be made of specially trained sniffer dogs, which are regarded as both cost-effective and reliable.

   This may seem low-tech but it has the great advantage of using proven techniques and is comparatively cheap.

    The low profile attached to domestic mass transit systems is illustrated in the United States, where Congress has failed to approve any substantial sums for improved security. For instance, a Senate committee has reduced Transportation Security Administration grants to $100 million for fiscal year 2006 compared with $150 million in the previous year.

    And the American Public Transportation Association says that since September 2001 US federal authorities have spent a massive $18.1 billion on aviation security while only $250 million has been spent on rail security.

    Given the vast size and strategic importance of the rail system to the US economy, let alone the mass transit systems for passengers in major conurbations, logic should dictate a substantial increase in security spending.

    Perhaps a hopeful sign was the introduction in May this year by a group of senators from both parties of a bill to fund $1.6 billion in transportation security grants spread over three years.


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