I was profoundly affected by my first trip to Washington, D.C., this year. Having pulled up stakes a few years ago after a lifetime in Los Angeles, I am exploring the East Coast’s treasures and ensuring my 8-year-old son grows up more worldly than I did. More so than I anticipated, my experience in our nation’s capital overfilled my heart with pride, instilled me with awe and stirred me emotionally. However, it was also a slap in the face to realize how vulnerable our cities — even the seat of our federal government — continue to be to attack.
The real eye-opener was my family’s daily commutes from our hotel in Alexandria, Va., to D.C. riding on the Washington Metro rapid transit railway. While the service was convenient, reasonably priced and for the most part reliable, I was flabbergasted by the apparent lack of security measures — either electronic systems or personnel wise — on the trains but especially at the many stations we frequented.
On some occasions at the Virginia depots there were no visible security or transit workers. The few staffers we did encounter during our stay seemed undertrained, which was unfortunate given the less-than-user-friendly ticketing machines. To the credit of the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA), however, there were not many signs of vandalism or vagrancy and — although partly due to us only traveling during busy times and mostly daylight hours — I did not feel susceptible to crime. That may have been misleading though as Metro Transit Police Department (MTPD) records show rail crime has more than doubled since 2008.
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Especially perplexing and alarming was the absence of any security clearance processes, access control, metals detection or bag checks. Sure, there were the usual cameras typically deployed for rail applications located on the platforms and scattered in other areas, but given the world in which we now live in I expected more — much more. Just about the only thing standing between individuals with the intent to do harm and the object of their destruction were mechanical (and easily bypassed) turnstiles. Why had this critical link within America’s core not been made a harder target for terrorists?
To be fair, achieving that goal presents many unique challenges given the environment and nature of heavy-rail transit such as Washington’s Metro trains and subways in other cities. Given the impressive capabilities of today’s security systems, funding is the overriding hindrance, but the logistics and need for swift and high throughput of passengers makes access, checkpoint and search tactics difficult to implement — even more so than at airports. In the case of Metro’s 86 stations, 106 miles of track and 200+ million daily passenger trips, authorities must contend with a rapid transit system that is second-busiest in the in the U.S. to New York’s subway.
I do not profess to be an expert in transit security nor the complexities of navigating through the labyrinth of government agencies (see “Firing Up Your Federal Government Business), but integrators I spoke with specializing in the sector were not surprised by my assessment. They expressed frustration about all the roadblocks in bringing superior security solutions to this market. Security Industry Association (SIA) CEO Don Erickson also substantiated my distress.
“SIA has always been concerned about the declining level of support the federal government has invested in the Transit Security Grant Program. It was authorized at a very significant amount immediately following 9/11 but has never received the full amount in many of the years since,” he told me. “We were part of an effort to ensure grant funds went directly to operators of transit systems for the acquisition and installation of security systems. There has been at times a backlog in getting DHS approval of transit security grant applications.”
Despite all this, there may be cause for optimism. WMATA recently announced a multimillion-dollar plan to triple its video cameras (1,900 to 6,000) and place some in rail cars for the first time. That’s a step in the right direction. However, as we seek to get out of the deadly shadow of this year’s Boston bombing and reflect on the 12th anniversary of 9/11 this month, I urge all security professionals to fight those battles and push for the preemptive hardening our rail lines and other critical infrastructure.
Editor-in-Chief Scott Goldfine has spent nearly 15 years with SECURITY SALES & INTEGRATION. Follow him online via the Under Surveillance blog at securitysales.com/blog.