Even after Sept. 11, 2001, it is easy to walk into a teeming Amtrak station 10 minutes before departure, pull your ticket from a machine and glide onto the train without inspection of your ID or your bags. Time magazine says last week’s explosions in Madrid may have put an end to that. The attack that killed some 200 innocents was cruelly simple. The perpetrators left backpacks full of explosives fitted with simple timers and walked away. About 10 million train and subway trips are taken every day in the United States. Amtrak shuttles 66,000 of those passengers, two-thirds of them through the target-rich northeast corridor. The Washington Metro subway moves 600,000 people near national monuments. What makes trains useful is what makes them hard to secure: many doors, high volumes of passengers and thousands of miles of lonely tracks.
Washington is spending $4.5 billion on aviation security this year but only $65 million on rail security–even though five times as many people take trains as planes every day. Since 2000, bombs have gone off (or been defused) on railways in India, Russia, France, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Israel, and Germany. Since 9/11, Amtrak and big-city subways have added police and dog units and removed some large, bomb-ready fixtures–like trash cans and vending machines. Last week Amtrak upped security patrols and electronic surveillance of tracks, bridges and tunnels.
Government officials have ruled out using metal detectors to screen passengers. “You can’t just apply the aviation-industry solution,” says Asa Hutchinson, Under Secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. “You can’t turn a train into a missile,” says Brian Jenkins, a transportation-security expert at the Rand Corp. “If we’ve driven terrorists from the sky to the ground, it would be an improvement.”
Democratic Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina proposed last week to allot $515 million for risk assessments and security improvements for trains. He has introduced the bill twice before, and it has gone nowhere. Most likely, conductors worldwide will deputize passengers to report unattended bags.