Is Amtrak at risk to a terrorist attack?

| 23/12/2015 | 0 Comments More

Is Amtrak Security Failing Moving into 2016

Recent terror attacks in California and Paris have all of us talking about security in public places, but there is one vulnerable target in Boston and throughout the Northeast that is potentially being overlooked.

It’s just before sunrise at a busy Station, already there’s a reminder of the threat of terrorism.

Armed Homeland Security Police officers make an unannounced inspection.

They are part of VIPR (Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response) Transportation Security Administration Team and are working with Amtrak Police and their bomb sniffing dogs, looking for suspicious behaviour and explosives. Each officer carry’s a radiation detector.

This periodic security operation, which takes place unannounced at train stations in the US raises an important question.

How likely is it that there will be a terrorist attack in the US on a train?

“We have to expect it. That’s the bottom line,” said Sean Burke, head of the Centre for Resilience Studies at Northeastern University and a former Homeland Security official.

Train attacks are happening overseas and Burke said there is nothing in place to guarantee it won’t happen in the US.

“The passenger rail system is designed to be open,” Burke said. “It’s specifically put in densely populated areas, it’s a system that is vulnerable really from the beginning of its trip to the end of its trip.”

There is open access to stations across the US everywhere you look. There are no check points, security lines or baggage checks, like there are in airports. And passengers don’t even have to present identification before they board, just a ticket.

The entire Amtrak system encompasses more than 21,000 miles of unprotected tracks and the rail line between Boston and Washington DC, the Northeast Corridor, carries the majority of Amtrak’s passengers.

“That is the heart and soul or our rail system in the U.S.,” said Congressman Stephen Lynch (D-MA), who has studied many of the terrorist attacks on trains around the world since 9-11.

“If the terrorists were trying to disrupt and terrorise, that would be a prime target of those individuals,” Lynch said. “When you see there are rail attacks in France or Russia or Japan or Spain or Britain that should be a message to us.”
It is estimated that five times as many people ride the rail system as fly in airplanes every year nationwide, and experts say if you tried to install airport style security and screening in train stations it would bring the entire rail system to a screeching halt.

Solutions to the problem of passenger rail security may not be easy.

A 2011 Inspector General’s report criticised how Amtrak and the Department of Homeland Security were spending security money, concluding “the traveling public remains at risk for a potential terrorist attack at Amtrak’s high-risk stations.”

“We need our security officials to be frank about the issue that the Department of Homeland Security, our first responders, they’re not always going to be able to keep us safe,” said Burke.

Like on the train in France this past summer, when it took the courageous acts of three American passengers to subdue an armed terrorist.

“They are the first line of defense,” Burke said. “It is every day citizens who are inevitably going to be the first responders.”

A spokeswoman for Amtrak Police said the agency has partnerships with dozens of law enforcement agencies around the country and even employs two of its own intelligence analysts to assess and help respond to terrorist threats.

In addition, Burke said that private companies are in the process of developing new technologies to scan trains for explosives and chemicals before they are boarded.

Congressman Lynch is planning to host a “rail security summit” early next year, the details of which are still being worked out

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