Even before Department of Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff went on record last month stating that Al Qaeda was rebuilding and that he had a "gut feeling" the United States faces a heightened risk of attack this summer, the transportation community already had terrorist threats on its mind.
Chertoff 's remarks came just days after the release of a new report that says U.S. railroads are extremely vulnerable to terrorist attacks. In the report, Securing and Protecting America's Railroad System: U.S. Railroad and Opportunities for Terrorist Threats, two professors from Penn State contend that traditional approaches to rail security are inadequate against post-9/11 terrorist threats. Citizens for Rail Safety Inc., a public-interest organization, sponsored the study.
The North American rail network, the report says, is too vast and diverse to be protected through traditional approaches, such as more policing, surveillance, or anti-trespassing measures. "Resources currently directed to rail security are inadequate, given the potential for catastrophic loss of life or economic disruption from attacks on the rail system," wrote co-authors Jeremy Plant, professor of public administration and public policy, and Richard Young, professor of supply chain management at Penn State's Harrisburg campus. To illustrate the scope of the challenge, Plant, who is a former chemicals industry logistics executive, noted that even if every one of the country's 2,300 railroad special agents were assigned to a specific bridge or tunnel, "you would run out of police long before you run out of infrastructure."
The report also details other key findings from Plant and Young's rail security study, including the following:
A first step toward helping the rail industry overcome some of those security challenges, suggest Plant and Young, would be for Congress to pass comprehensive rail security legislation and allocate adequate financial and administrative resources to existing security efforts. A second step would be to help rail carriers limit their exposure to attacks by allowing them to deal more harshly with trespassers. Right now, railroads bear some liability for the safety of trespassers. Furthermore, the penalties for trespassing on rail property are not equal to those for other transportation modes.
"We've had a real focus on protecting our airports and air traffic," says Young. "There are strong regulations in place at those facilities, and people know that if you jump a fence at an airport, you'll have quite a problem on your hands. Yet you can trespass on railroad property, and not a lot happens to you. We think the U.S. government needs to get a bit more serious by creating more severe penalties for trespassing."
The researchers also say that coordination between the railroads' own police forces and the various law enforcement agencies involved needs to be improved. At the same time, they caution, the railroads' effective security efforts ought to be further leveraged and not displaced by government resources.
The study also recommends the following steps:
Whether a threat to rail security is imminent or not—and Secretary Chertoff emphasized that he had no specific information that Al Qaeda was planning an attack in the United States—the country cannot afford to sit back and do nothing. "There is a balance that needs to be reached between security and maintaining the economic vitality of the railroads," says Plant, "because they are certainly the most energy-efficient way of moving large cargo and … the only way of moving certain cargo."