Tough Track for Railroads: Passenger and Freight Railroads Face an Uphill Battle in Their Efforts to Secure the Line

By Gips, Michael A. | Security Management, January 2005 | Go to article overview

Tough Track for Railroads: Passenger and Freight Railroads Face an Uphill Battle in Their Efforts to Secure the Line


Gips, Michael A., Security Management


For every one person who takes an airplane for business or pleasure in the United States, another five reach their destination by rail, according to an analysis of industry data. And that traffic does not count the volume of cargo, much of it hazardous, transported by rail. Yet most of the money directed to securing transportation in the United States has gone to aviation.

For example, rail and transit (which cumulatively includes commuter rail, subways, buses, and light rail) is due to receive $150 million of federal funds for security initiatives in 2005, not including monies going to general transportation-security technology development. Those funds come in the form of grants to state and local governments.

During the same time frame, $5.1 billion has been earmarked for aviation security. A survey by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that there would be a cumulative shortfall in security spending for passenger trains and buses of $6 billion.

As a result of these funding levels, freight and passenger railroads, including subway systems, have been left to depend mostly on their own resources to cobble together both high-tech and low-tech measures. The following analysis looks at the nature of the threats and technologies being tested or deployed to counter these threats.

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Freight rail. The freight rail system comprises more than 500 freight railroads that operate along 200,000 miles of track. In addition, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) has identified 1,308 critical facilities, such as key bridges, tunnels, dispatch centers, and storage facilities. These railroads also carry a tremendous diversity of freight, each of which may require unique protection. Given the size and diversity of the system, it offers an "infinite" number of targets, according to congressional testimony given by Peter F. Guerrero and Norman J. Rabkin, both with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Interconnectivity within the rail system and between the transportation sector and the rest of the economy is another major challenge. Imported freight can move from ship to train to truck, multiplying the security issues.

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A breach in one mode can easily affect the others. Intermodal facilities, such as points where ports and railroads connect, are also high-value targets because of the conflation of passengers, freight, employees, and equipment, according to the GAO.

In addition, the large number of stakeholders makes security more complicated. Private companies and government agencies at every level share responsibility for rail security, and a multitude of both freight and commuter railroads may share the same track. This creates communications challenges and conflicting interests.

But the stakes are high and all of the stakeholders understand the importance of overcoming these barriers. Within this context, security experts generally identify two major threats to freight rail: hazardous chemicals and weapons of mass destruction.

Hazardous materials. A frequently cited threat to freight trains is the compromise of a railcar containing hazardous chemicals. According to the AAR, railroads ship about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials and hazardous waste annually.

One problem is that gaining access to railcars when they are not in transit is easy, says Neil Livingstone, CEO of security consulting firm Global Options LLC, which advises freight lines on how to improve security.

For proof of that, one need only consider that railcars and train bridges are often festooned with graffiti, notes Fred Millar, a hazardous-materials specialist and a member of the Washington, D.C., Local Emergency Planning Commission. That's a graphic depiction of how "porous" the freight rail system really is.

Another problem is that because of their size, rail yards are difficult to protect cost-effectively. …

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