Another Post-September 11 Reality; U.S. Railroads Remain Vulnerable to Terrorist Attacks

Article excerpt


In the wake of the September 11 attacks, many people asked with great urgency: Why didn't someone connect the dots? Why didn't we see the attacks coming? And, how do we prevent other attacks?

The response was a classic example of protecting against the last threat and not "thinking outside the box" about that next threat. We have flung ourselves headlong into creating a safer air traffic system and so far it has been working. Another threat, which has reared its ugly and deadly head in Madrid, London, Chechnya and India, is the threat to the railroads.

We received threats against our railroads, and the major commuter railroads and subway systems were blanketed by police. Nothing happened, and that is a good thing. However, the bigger threat to our nation's railroads comes not from the potential to repeat those attacks on passenger rail around the world, but upon railroad infrastructure itself, which is primarily freight railroad in the United States.

Except along the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, Amtrak runs on the tracks of the various freight railroads, as do most commuter railroads. A network of nearly 200,000 miles of railroad stretches across America with thousands upon thousands of switches, turnouts, crossovers, bridges, trestles, tunnels and hundreds of railroad yards and thousands upon thousands of railcars and locomotives.

All are vulnerable to attack and sabotage and given al Qaeda's penchant for multiple, simultaneous attacks, any such attacks against the freight railroad infrastructure or the targeting of hazardous commodities in transit could spell disastrous consequences for local communities across the nation and could deliver a crippling blow to our economy. In addition, such attacks are easy and cheap to carry out.

Are we prepared to defend against such attacks? Sadly, the answer is a resounding "no." While the British Transport Police in Great Britain fields more than 3,500 officers to protect the rail system in that country, there are fewer than 1,400 railroad police officers in the United States, down from more than 4,000 20 years ago. Even since September 11, the freight railroads have continued to trim their police departments. Instead of fielding uniformed officers 24/7 across their systems, the freight railroads rely on "special agents" who are assigned 200 to 700 miles of railroad to protect. …