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High-Speed Rail Security Needs a Different Approach than Commuter Rail

When it comes to security for high-speed rail, the approach needs to be different than that for light rail or commuter rail. The reason is simple; the approach that terrorists take is different, according to Brian Jenkins, director of the National Transportation Security Center of Excellence, Mineta Transportation Institute.

"When terrorists attack high-speed rail systems, they seem to prefer to derail trains. When they go after non-high-speed rail systems, they more often try to detonate bombs in passenger compartments," Jenkins says. "Most attacks on high-speed rail systems target the tracks (66 percent) vs. the passenger compartment (17 percent). More attacks on non-high-speed rail systems target the passenger compartment than the tracks."

He continues saying, "Terrorists choose between volume and velocity. Passenger loads on high-speed rail trains, per-car and per-train are less than slower-speed commuter or regional trains. This explains why high lethality with bombs detonated in passenger compartments is more achievable on a non-high-speed train. On the other hand, train velocity is obviously much greater on high-speed trains, making collisions or derailments a more attractive and effective choice of attack method."

According to Jenkins, Bombs placed on the tracks are on average twice as lethal for high-speed rail as those placed in the passenger compartments. For non-high-speed rail, bombs in passenger compartments have proved to be more lethal than bombs on the tracks. Derailments that involve a mechanical means of sabotage can be more lethal than bombs on the track.

"Technology, particularly on high-speed rail systems, will cause train operations to cease if a bomb detonates and causes catastrophic destruction prior to train arrival. Effective use of explosives, as in the Russian Nevsky Express attack in 2009, requires the detonation to be timed perfectly with a train's passage," Jenkins says. "Even in this attack, more casualties were crush and impact injuries and fatalities, occurring in the derailing rear cars (numbers 12, 13, and 14) of the train than those caused by the explosion under the ninth car."

So what are the options for increasing security on high-speed rail systems? While monitoring the entirety of the track is nearly impossible, surveillance of key points is very important. Video surveillance near bridges, tunnel entrances, curves and other key points can improve the security, Jenkins says. "I remember in Bin Laden's notebook he was talking about derailing a train in the United States and he didn't specify a high-speed train but in his notebooks he mentioned derail it on a curve to try and take it off the tracks," he says.

Another option is sweeper trains, which are used by most high-speed rail systems. Before trains start running with passengers for the day, an empty train runs out over the entire system. This ensures that everything is working properly. In addition, contingency planning with local law enforcement along the system can divide the responsibility and make a full sweep more efficient. "You would divide the rail line into basically short distances and people would have an agreement that local law enforcement; each one would be covering a 5 to 10-mile stretch so you could do a very rapid search if you had to and reduce disruption times," Jenkins explains.

Due to High-speed rail track and equipment safety enhancements accidental derailments are now less lethal. Jenkins explains that high-speed train sets are designed with relatively rigid, semi-permanent connections while slower-speed trains rely on traditional "knuckle" couplers. These more rigid connections greatly reduce the probability of a train "jackknifing," or of partially or completely rolling over. Non-high-speed passenger trains tend to jackknife or flip over, causing a significantly high number of injuries and fatalities.

"Track designs have incorporated enhancements to guide and guard rails, which keep a derailed train moving upright, along the right of way, keeping it from going off bridges, down hills and away from trains on other tracks or bridge abutments and walls. Brackets have been added to high-speed train wheel sets in Japan to keep a derailed train on the track, reducing the probability significant casualties in an accidental or intentional derailment."

Security for surface transportation must comprise the entire spectrum of measures from deterrence and detection to mitigation and emergency response. Aviation security is "front-loaded," that is, it aims at prevention. Surface transportation security cannot be front-loaded, but there is much that can be done to mitigate casualties and to save lives after an attack, as well as minimizing damage and expediting recovery process, explains Jenkins.

"Protecting public places that, by their very nature, require easy access is difficult and costly. To be worthwhile, security must provide a net security benefit," he says. "The result cannot be a mere diversion of the attack to another accessible public place where the attacker can achieve the same results in casualties."

Jenkins warns however that we need to be realistic about security. "One hundred percent security in surface transportation is not possible. Some risk is unavoidable, just as when we drive our automobiles, but the risk to individual citizens from terrorism is minuscule."