Research Shows Immense Challenge of Securing Railways Against Terrorism

With the terrorist threat in Europe reportedly at its highest level in 10 years, measures are being studied how to harden security railways across the continent.

PARIS – Transportation ranks second after retail on the list of global industries that were attacked by terrorists in 2014, according to AON (NYSE: AON) , a global provider of risk management, insurance and outsourcing services.

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The Global Terrorism Database registered more than 3,600 terrorist incidents against public transport modes between 1992 and 2014, representing 3.7% of all incident types. Within the transport target category, heavy and light rail transport related attacks account for 34%. Starting with 2013, there is a sharp increase in the number of terrorist attacks against the railway system.

South Asia is the region that registers the highest number of terrorist attacks against railways (42%), with railways of India (21%) and Pakistan (17%) being the most affected by terrorism. Russia stands third on this rank with 101 attacks counted (8%). Attacks against European railways represented 20% of the total number of railway incidents worldwide. All the components of the railway system are potential targets. Attacks against railway lines account for 43% of the total rail incidents, followed by passenger trains with 25%, rail stations with 14%, subway system (7%) and freight trains (5%). In 82% of the attacks, explosives were used. Firearm assaults (8%), arson (4%) and sabotage (2%) make up the next largest shares of attacks.

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Previous attacks on London, Madrid, Moscow, Paris and Tokyo’s public transport systems have determined transport authorities, operators, infrastructure managers and other stakeholders to carry out terrorism risk assessments and to direct more investments in closing the identified security and safety gaps in their operations and infrastructure. The priorities in mitigating risks differ from case to case, however their line of actions to improve security is similar and focuses on the resilience of stations and rolling stock to explosives, installation of security technologies, passenger awareness programs, security and emergency plans, employee training.

The debate over the introduction of airport-style security in the railway system rekindled after the August armed attack on Amsterdam-Paris Thalis train. Passenger profiling, passenger screening, metal detectors, X-ray machines, explosives sniffers, hand searchers,  armed guardsare security solutions that could greatly impact the main features of public transport: open and facile access. Unfortunately, these main features are exactly its main vulnerabilities in front of terrorist attacks, according to

The Transportation Security Administration in the United States and the British Department of Transport have carried out pilot programs and tests for identifying adequate counter-terrorism security technology for railway stations (2004 -2009 technology). Checkpoint style technologies for passengers and luggage screening for explosives, x-ray checkpoint passengers and luggage screening, advanced explosives detection technology using passive millimeter wave (PMMW) screening technologies have been temporary deployed in stations and tested. The conclusions are similar: these technologies would be difficult to implement on very busy stations and commuter trains without significantly increasing waiting times and making rail transport services less attractive.

Introducing in railway stations the technologies used in airports would also require major financial investments and long-term planning. Just for installing gates before train entrances would require 20 times the investment made for airplanes and airports, the chief executive of France’s SNCF railway operator, Guillaume Pepy stated after the August armed attack on Amsterdam-Paris Thalis train, according to

Currently, video surveillance is the most wide spread technology among public transport operators, including railways. According to a recent survey carried out by UITP and Axis Communications, cameras are predominantly installed at stations (81%), onboard rolling stock (75.6%) and at depots and rail yards (70.2%). Most respondents reported that video surveillance is firmly a cross-functional tool and that for security incidents they collaborate with the police and other authorities, according to

Partnership and operational collaboration are the areas that EU railway and security stakeholders should focus in order to prevent terrorist incidents. A call for an enhanced and more focused cooperation within and between the transport bodies and European networks that already exist (network of European Railway Police Forces, ATLAS network of special intervention forces, International Rail Transport Committee etc) was also made at European Transport and Home Affairs Ministerial meeting on cross-border cooperation against terrorism and for rail security, called following the Thalys train incident. At the time, EU’s land transport security expert group (LANDSEC) was tasked to carry out research for identifying best practices and policies in rail security and if additional measures could or should be taken at EU level.

A proactive partnership model to look into can be found in the United States, according to Railway operators and federal public transport authorities like the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Transport Security Administration (TSA), Department of Transport, Federal Railway Administration have created a highly effective collaborative network.

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