10 Years Later: How Has Transit Security Changed Since 9/11

As we remember the 9/11 attacks of 10 years ago, our memories may be flooded with sadness and loss. However, much has been learned and achieved in the 10 years since the tragic event. The transit industry has made great strides in the areas of security and safety.

“Prior to 9/11 what we had in the industry was calmer approaches toward security and policing,” comments Greg Hull, American Public Transit Association (APTA) director of operations for safety and security programs. Hull explains that prior to 9/11 APTA had worked with the Federal Transit Administration to develop common approaches toward system safety, which included security and emergency preparedness.

He says: “We did in fact have standardized formats for the development of plans for systems safety, system security and emergency management planning. So those mechanisms were already in place and in fact, starting in 1996 when the FTA came out with the State Safety Oversight legislation for those transit systems that had rail operations were from that point forward required to go through an audit to ensure that security systems, safety systems, emergency management operations procedures were all in place in accordance to the plans that had been developed. I think that’s a very important aspect of what we had in place.”

Hull says that a very important aspect of what is in place in the United States – and all of North America – is that there is a very open sharing of information and resources among transit systems and agencies because our transit system is public.

“As security plans were being developed, as training plans were being developed, a lot of that was shared amongst the agencies and prior to 9/11, given what we knew had been occurring in the UK with the IRA bombings, given our knowledge of what had already been occurring in parts of Europe with terrorist style activities, Paris Metro and particularly in 1995 the sarin attack in Tokyo, all led to a heightened awareness as to the potential of terrorism within the public transit environment. It was certainly awareness and some basis upon which we were able to build and mechanisms that we had in place.”

Within hours of the 9/11 attacks Hull says “we were able to convene discussions among the senior management of our transit systems and the FTA, and we began to discuss what we might need to put into place, resources that needed to be created to assist our systems.”

Among the first things that were undertaken were financial resources being put into place by the FTA for vulnerability assessments to aid transit systems in refining their security plans and tightening up any aspects that needed to be addressed.

“We also saw direction to the National Academy’s Transportation Research Board to set aside funding in the order I believe it was $2 million to be specifically applied toward security related research, to develop research documents, guidance documents that would aid transit agencies in refining and developing further their approaches toward security and refining their security plans,” Hull explains.” We also saw that there was a need to set up a system whereby we could acquire information, security information, and security intelligence information.”

Through collaboration with the FTA, APTA developed the Public Transit Information Shared Analysis Center (PTISAC). PTISAC is a system whereby any transit agency, whether an APTA member or not, could receive information related to security and threats that would be of interest to the agencies on a 24 hours basis. Information would be sent out to designated contacts within the transit agency. Information comes through a variety of sources – FBI, CIA and TSA, Hull explains.

In the initial years following 9/11, the FTA provided APTA with grant funding to maintain the PTISAC system. Hull says that carries forward to today, however now the TSA has taken over the grant funding to APTA.

“We currently have something in the order of 1,700 contacts in the IPAC program that arranges not just within the U.S. but outside of the U.S. as well, and the other thing that was developed was a number of resources through the National Transit Institute; we felt that there was a need to standardize security training for transit systems,” explains Hull. “The National Transit Institute developed collaboratively with the FTA, with the industry and with APTA a series of training programs on security awareness for frontline employees, for supervisory personnel and directed specifically toward the different modes – direct toward bus, toward rail, toward commuter rail. That program carries forward to this day.”

September 11 also raised the discussions about whether or not to engage the public. Would engaging the public frighten the public in regards to riding public transit, or would it serve the better interest? “As you well know now, as you travel around you see whether it’s Washington Metro, New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, virtually all the public transit systems have adopted the concepts of public awareness, public engagement,” says Hull.

Hull explains that public engagement was initially accomplished through a sharing of best practices and was incorporated into a program developed by the FTA – and now jointly through the FTA and TSA – called Transit Watch. Through Transit Watch, transit agencies can download, free of charge, outreach materials that they simply need to put their logo on and then of course carry out the programs internally with their own employees and public. “It’s kind of evolved over time to the concept of extended eyes and ears, see something, say something. Interestingly, that concept of “See something, say something,” which had a truth in public transit has been picked up by the Secretary of Homeland Security and now is being applied across all infrastructures across the United States,” Hull says.

Four years ago, APTA added security standards development to its array of standards programs. APTA focuses on four different areas of security: infrastructure, risk management, emergency management and cyber security.

“I think that as we have seen the continuing evolution of security for transit in this post 9/11 world; I think what we have seen is that we are seeing security based on four particular areas,” Hull comments. He says these areas are: people, procedures, communication and information, and capital investment.

“While we have certainly in that time frame immediately following 9/11 had a very strong focus on countering terrorism, what we have seen a continual progression toward is the realization that countering terrorism is part of the continuum, of course terrorism being at the extreme end, but the base for security is really on what we do on a day-to-day basis,” Hull says. “We’ve realized that attending to those day-to-day quality of life issues that help our riding public feel safe and secure by knowing that personnel are available, by seeing that facilities are well designed, well lit and that as anything might occur there is quick response to situations all create for a day-to-day feeling of the riding public that they are in a safe and secure environment.”

Hull compares this focus on the day-to-day to the concept of the broken window theory. If there is a broken window or graffiti that isn’t attended to, then it causes the general public and/or people who might want to hard the general public through either criminal or terrorist means to get a feeling that this is an easy target.

“Within that whole picture we have certainly not taken our eye off the need to be attentive toward potential terrorism, in fact we know through studies that have been conducted through the Mineta Transportation Institute and certainly through reports through the GAO that it’s been cited that one third of all acts of terrorism are carried out on or around transportation infrastructure,” explains Hull. “So we are very much aware of the potential threats that are out there. We have been very fortunate up to this time in the U.S. that while we haven’t had acts carried out effected upon transit; there certainly have been individuals that have been incarcerated, people whose plots have been found out. So to that degree we have been fortunate to this point in time. It causes us to appreciate that we need to be ever vigilant.”

While prior to 9/11 we had did indeed have security and policing measures in place, we have become more sophisticated in our approaches, refining our procedures and plans. Hull says we are now at a point that we are seen Congress and the federal government understanding the need to support these approaches toward security.

“The challenge however is that our industry by need and by design has to maintain an open infrastructure. I’ll just give you an example by what I mean by that. It kind of goes to the difference between air travel and air travel security and transit travel. In the course of the morning peak period, Penn Station in New York will handle the number of people that Chicago O’Hare airport handles in two and a half days,” Hull says. “By that example what I am indicating is that the approaches that we have toward security in the public transit arena by need and by design have to be different.”

Much has been done to improve transit security in the 10 years following 9/11; however, advancement s in security will continue to evolve as time goes on.

“We have not yet seen congress taking steps in providing the level of support that we truly need. We certainly do not need another wakeup call in regards to the threats that lie out there,” Hull concludes.