Can mass transit be protected?
The massive number of subways and trains makes it tough
By Gary Stoller
WASHINGTON, DC — The government's top security officials say they are upgrading subway and rail defenses against terrorist attacks throughout the country, but a USA TODAY examination finds gaping holes, including many that may not be possible to plug.
The holes in security leave travelers more vulnerable on the more than 4 billion trips they take by subway and rail each year than in the sky, where airlines carried fewer than 700 million passengers from U.S. airports last year.
Six terrorist plots targeting U.S. subway and rail systems have been exposed since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and the systems remain a target, transit authorities, security experts and members of Congress agree. An alleged plot to simultaneously bomb four Washington, D.C., Metro subway stations was foiled in October, and another plot to detonate explosives in New York's subway system was averted last year.
Yet, as the nation debates the federal Transportation Security Administration's (TSA) stricter screening methods at airport security checkpoints, about 15 million passengers board subway cars and trains unscreened each weekday.
"Mass transit systems are much less secure than the aviation sector or certain key government buildings," says Clark Kent Ervin, the Department of Homeland Security's former inspector general.
And they'll likely remain that way, USA TODAY has found in its examination of rail security, which included an analysis of the National Counterterrorism Center's incident database and interviews with Congress, federal security officials, transit authorities, rail operators, independent security experts and passengers.
The nation's vast network of more than 3,200 stations and more than 20,000 miles of track combined with the impracticality and cost of screening every passenger leave U.S. subways and rails exposed to the type of terrorist attacks 22 other nations have experienced the last five years.
Having a secure network ultimately is the responsibility of the TSA, which is in the Department of Homeland Security. While the agency has imposed stringent screening of air passengers at the nation's 450 commercial airports, it says it has no similar plans for rail passengers.
The TSA has largely left rail security to local governments, which USA TODAY finds often don't have the capability and money to make systems secure.
Although TSA spends most of its budget on aviation security, protecting mass transit passengers will be as much a priority as protecting air travelers, John Pistole, the agency's administrator, said after taking charge in July.
"We know that some terrorist groups see rail and subways as being more vulnerable, because there's not the type of screening that you find in aviation," he said.
'Vulnerable to attack'
Although terrorists have yet to successfully strike, U.S. rail and transit officials know their systems are targets susceptible to attack.
"Mass transit systems, by nature, are open systems and vulnerable to attack," says Lisa Farbstein, a spokeswoman for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority. "The Metro system is no different, with multiple entrances and exits designed to move a large number of riders."
Amtrak, which carries nearly 30 million passengers annually to more than 500 stations in 46 states, Washington and three Canadian provinces, agrees.
"Amtrak functions in a very open and, therefore, porous transportation environment," spokesman Steve Kulm says. "Because of advantages such as easy access, convenient locations and intermodal connections, rail and mass transit systems are completely different from the structure and organization of the airline transportation and airport industry."
A July report by the Government Accountability Office says high ridership, expensive infrastructure, economic importance and location in large metropolitan areas or tourist destinations also make passenger rail systems "attractive targets for terrorists."
Subways and trains have been more frequently attacked worldwide than aircraft and airports, USA TODAY's analysis of the National Counterterrorism Center's database shows.
There were 213 attacks on subways and trains from Jan. 1, 2005, through June 30, 2010, compared with 197 attacks on aircraft and airports.
In the subway and rail attacks, 700 were killed, 3,262 wounded and 3,114 taken hostage. In the aircraft and airport attacks, 238 were killed, 937 were wounded and 281 were taken hostage. The statistics include March suicide bombings that killed 40 people in the Moscow subway system but do not include a 2004 attack in Madrid that killed 191 after 10 bombs exploded on four trains.
"Logic dictates that because mass transit is 'mass,' terrorists are interested in attacking it to maximize death, injury and panic," says Ervin, the former Homeland Security Department inspector general.
Can't screen every passenger
Perhaps the only way to make subway and rail cars secure is to screen every passenger similar to what the TSA and its 50,000 screeners and some private contractors do at airports.
And some passengers, such as Carl Woodin of Maple Glen, Pa., say they wouldn't mind it. He says security was poor during the 24 trips he took this year on subway, Amtrak and other trains.
"I always thought that a terrorist could very easily board a New Jersey Transit or Amtrak train on the Northeast Corridor and demolish New York's Penn Station and Madison Square Garden," says Woodin, president of a multimedia company.
But security analysts say screening all subway and rail passengers is impractical and too costly. And the TSA "is not considering" requiring it, the agency said in a written response to USA TODAY questions.
"Mass transit systems in the U.S. are vast, a literal black hole," says James Carafano, a homeland security expert at The Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington think tank. "They would consume every cent we spend on homeland security, and there still would be vast vulnerabilities."
Brian Jenkins, security research director for the Mineta Transportation Institute, which is funded by Congress and researches transportation policy issues, estimates that it costs $8 to $10 to screen a single passenger. "If you add that cost to a subway fare, it would destroy public transportation," Jenkins says.
Screening all passengers could also slow mass transit to a crawl because most subway and rail riders travel en masse during weekday rush hours, security experts say. Many riders with a 20-minute or less commute would not accept a 20-minute or so security-screening delay and would opt for another means of transportation, Jenkins says.
"One hundred percent screening of rail passengers is not realistic," he says. "You might need hundreds of thousands of screeners."
Security rests in local hands
TSA has devoted most of its resources to air security after the 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, leaving subway and rail security primarily to transit authorities, local governments and rail operators, including many that are not in good financial condition.
In an April report, the American Public Transportation Association said public transportation systems "are facing unprecedented funding challenges due to widespread declining state and local revenues."
The association, which represents transit agencies and rail and bus operators, found 70% of 151 transit systems that responded to an association survey project "budget shortfalls" this year.
William Millar, the association's president, says transit authorities don't have the necessary resources. More than $30 billion has been allocated for aviation security since 9/11, compared with $1.7 billion for subway, passenger rail, cargo rail, bus and some ferry security, Millar says.
Police Chief Paul MacMillan of the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, which operates transit systems in Boston, says, "We understand the commitment to aviation," but "There needs to be a commitment by the federal government to dedicate more attention to mass transit."
Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., chairman of the House Committee on Homeland Security, says he's "deeply troubled" by the small amount of TSA's budget devoted to transit and rail security. Fewer than 2 million airline passengers fly daily, and about 34 million rail and transit passenger trips are taken each weekday, he says.
"Although funding for surface transportation security at TSA was doubled for fiscal year 2010 (which ended Sept. 30), it still only constituted less than 2% of TSA's budget, compared to around 85% for aviation," Thompson says.
TSA spokeswoman Kristin Lee says that "the Obama administration has made extraordinary investments in surface transportation security" during the past two budget years, including allocating $850 million for transit agencies, funding local anti-terrorism teams and launching a program with Amtrak to encourage passengers to report suspicious activity.
More random screening
In the absence of universal screening, the TSA has pushed random screening of passengers and a show of force as a deterrent to attacks.
Random screening, the TSA says, has been conducted by transit and rail authorities in the New York and Boston subway systems and in Amtrak stations in the Northeast.
On Dec. 16, Washington, D.C., Metro police said they would begin random inspections of passengers' carry-on items. The TSA says it will partner next year with local law enforcement to conduct random screening in additional locations.
The TSA says it this year conducted with local law enforcement more than 6,500 "Visual Intermodal Prevention and Response teams operations" -- an unannounced, high-visibility presence of security officers at a transportation facility -- in various transportation modes, including mass transit and passenger rail systems.
The teams were created in response to the March 2004 bombings of commuter trains in Madrid.
However, the Government Accountability Office in a May report said questions have been raised about the effectiveness of the program. The Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General said the TSA needed to develop a more collaborative relationship with local transit officials, and the GAO said TSA had not fully established performance measures to assess the results of its prevention and response teams.
Thompson, the House homeland security committee chairman, says no funds should be provided to the program until a federal grant program allocating security money to transit agencies is fully funded.
Federal money also needs to be "significantly" increased for canine teams for rail and transit authorities, and the Department of Homeland Security needs to develop initiatives to "encourage innovation and technology" for rail and transit security, he says.
Thompson also criticizes the TSA for "very poor management" in its Surface Transportation Security Inspection office. The office determines the tasks of inspectors who evaluate rail and mass transit security and are on the prevention and response teams.
Thompson's counterpart in the Senate -- Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., who chairs the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee -- says, "Rail and transit security will never achieve the level of security that exists at airports."
However, he says, there needs to be more video surveillance and installation of sensors "that automatically detect chemical, biological and explosive threats."
Other security holes
Other holes in rail security exist, security analysts say.
An explosive device could be placed in subway or rail cars when they're out of service in a train yard. They can be attacked traveling between stations. Or, the rails, bridges and tunnels they ride on or pass through could be sabotaged.
Amtrak says its trains operate on more than 21,000 miles of track.
Still, there's a difference in what a terrorist can do to a train vs. a plane, says Ron Heil, a security consultant for transportation industry firm TranSystems.
"The airplane can be used as a weapon of mass destruction, such as in the 9/11 attacks, and there is no recovering from even a small blast at 40,000 feet," Heil says. "Trains must travel on rails, making them hard to steer into other targets but easy to attack externally on their routes."
And despite rail's vulnerability, several security experts say securing subways and trains shouldn't come at the expense of secure skies.
"Terrorists have been trying relentlessly to attack aviation since 9/11," says Carafano of The Heritage Foundation. "Only an idiot would divert resources from aviation security to rail."
Ultimately, analysts say, the key to thwarting terrorism on the nation's rails is intelligence to prevent an attack -- which has worked.
"The government must use intelligence and surveillance procedures to see to it that no terrorist has a chance to attack," says Walid Phares of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, D.C.-based policy institute focusing on terrorism.
Copyright 2010 Gannett Company, Inc.