Rail Security on Watch

After the death of Osama Bin Laden, the Department of Homeland Security announced that material found at the Bin Laden compound showed al Qaeda contemplated attacking the U.S. rail sector in February 2010 and they considered attacking U.S. trains on the 10th anniversary of 9/11. The information was inconclusive as to whether or not there were any active plans in place.

It was days after Bin Laden’s death that transit officials urged Congress to fully fund the security grants that were recently cut by $50 million in the 2011 budget agreement, cutting funding for the Transit Security Grant Program from $300 million to $250 million.

The 9-11 Commission Act called for $3.4 billion over four years and Congress has only appropriated less than half of the funding it authorized in this act. Transit properties have been on alert and are underfunded, leading to many pulling money from their operating budgets, often resulting in reduced service and fare hikes simply to keep systems safe.

Visiting MBTA for this issue’s cover story, I got to see their Operations Control Center firsthand. With the 10-year anniversary of 9/11 approaching, I asked about what that day was like for them. It was during the bulk of the peak period, so they were fortunate to be able to keep many more people from coming in to the city and by noon, the downtown was a ghost town. Following that day, transit security forever changed for them, and every other agency.

2002 and 2003 meant fluctuating high threat levels, which was financially crippling. The threat levels might not be at those same high levels, but permanent changes have been put in place across the country to maintain secure systems.

Talking to the people at agencies, it’s apparent that it’s not just terrorist threats that require the high level of security SOPs in place. I had arrived at MBTA a week after employee Ed Rowe had to be rescued after falling down a 30-foot concrete shaft between the tracks at a Red Line station.

The Red Line carries a little more than 220,000 passengers a day, and with it happening near the core of the city, both ends of the line were impacted by the situation. Riders were taken in as close as possible where they were taken off the train and transferred on to buses. With all of these riders being brought up to the city level to transfer, it impacts the city flow then, as well.

There’s a lot of work to keep systems safe and it costs a lot of money to do it.

If you’re attending APTA’s Rail Conference in Boston this month, you’ll see a variety of safety and security-related sessions and there is also the opportunity to tour MBTA’s state-of-the-art Operations Control Center during one of the technical tours. If you have the opportunity, you’ll want to see the control center of the 5th largest system.

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