Urban Rail and Terrorism

Panos Prevedouros, PHD
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BY PANOS PREVEDOUROS PHD – The recent article “For Transit Agencies, Terrorists Are Moving Targets” in the magazine of the New Jersey Transportation Planning Authority raises many critical issues relating to the security of urban rail systems.

  • Security experts and transit officials alike all but guarantee that some intentional tragedy will, sooner or later, befall the transit infrastructure of a major American city.
  • al Qaeda and other terrorist organizations have also struck mass transit. Since 2011, bombings have taken place on transit systems in Mumbai (2002, 2003 and 2006), Madrid (2004), Moscow (2004 and 2010) and London (2005).
  • According to the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) Data Base of Terrorists Attacks against Public Surface Transportation, over 4,000 people were killed in 1,434 attacks between 2004 and 2010.
  • Transit infrastructure by its very nature presents a ripe target, terror experts say. While airline passengers have to go so far as to take off their shoes and submit to controversial full-body scans, transit passengers move freely through portals like ghosts. And what passengers can do, so can couriers of bombs, nerve gas and anthrax.
  • To combat everyday crime, such as theft, that takes place on their systems, transit agencies have long maintained their own police forces, or contracted out to other law agencies.
  • Regardless of the money that Washington, D.C., does not provide, transit officials say that vigilance is their most important resource. Waiting for a threat that may never emerge—scanning subway platforms day-in, and day-out—can, however, be a mind-numbing task.

The bottom line is that:


(1) FTA does not provide funds for security,

(2) Substantial funds are necessary just to combat groping, pickpocketing and other petty crime, and,

(3) Rail transit security is nearly impossible to accomplish at any level comparable to aviation, but the cost for it is very high given the number of stations and passengers (and potential criminals and terrorists) that utilize the rail systems.

LA's Gold Line rail

In the picture below from LA’s Gold Line rail one can see six security officers (that is, six salaries and benefits) and no passengers.





  1. The points you make are good ones. However, it’s unfortunate that the photo undermines your credibility. It implies that six officers are overkill (no pun) for no passengers. But what is the context of the photo? Was the area blocked off to passengers at that moment? Were the officers investigating a crime, necessitating a team? Were they sweeping the area for hazards? Were they securing the area for an event? Without any context, and without further explanation in your caption, the reader is left to assume the worst… that six officers were deployed – at great cost to the taxpayer – to one spot where there were no passengers.

    • The picture is from the original article and speaks for itself. I added my comment because many will glance at it and won’t understand the dollar cost of what it’s depicted.

      Third rail systems are magnets for suicides, all of which remain a secret statistic. Indeed this picture may be such a case. Any way you look at it, rail for us is a lose-lose proposition.

      The bottom line is that we cannot afford rail and its massive construction and operational costs, which, in large part do NOT include Transit Police in the current financial plans.

  2. Indeed, the points Panos makes ARE good ones. But BettyBlueEyes’s thinking is wrong if she thinks the photo undermines his credibility — similar to how seeing a photo of an airplane crash might “undermine” the credibility of civil aviation. Sure, it’s possible these cops just disembarked from the train and are headed somewhere else, or they just got off a flying saucer and are sampling our atmosphere — but both of these are highly unlikely circumstances. Much more likely is that they are standing sucking dollars out of taxpayers’ pockets, just like I see at HNL with TSA on occasion — or when I see a dozen uniformed police and six or eight police vehicles gathered around a roadside incident… or when I see cops “guarding” local road work crews. Money, money money…, drip, drip, drip.

  3. We are always in danger of 1000 things that might happen, but this is no reason to start panicking about everything that might happen

  4. what the hell has to do al qaeda with hawaii?! grow up, people, not everything that happens is about terrorism!

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