Aviation pre-screening (now Secure Flight) has made airports and airplanes more secure against terrorism. This is why Senator Chuck Schumer’s post-bin Laden proposal to create a “Do Not Ride” list for the Amtrak rail system had a very small glimmer of merit. On closer look, however, this is a really bad idea.
Secure Flight operates to check passengers on both domestic and international flights against FBI terrorist watch lists. It works well partly because the passenger aviation model is more amenable to prescreening. For example:
– Airport passengers often buy their tickets with significant lead time. There is a reason for the saying “hop a train.” Many passengers use rail for last minute jaunts for short distances, such as an emergency meeting in Boston when one lives in New York. Amtrak (not known for actually making a profit) is actually profitable through its Northeast Corridor service, which largely services those traveling to meetings and short-term travel up and down the Northeast seaboard. An individual can purchase a ticket or check-in by swiping a credit card at a kiosk shortly before the train leaves, a convenience that businessmen and women rely on. Most rail travelers have little “luggage” besides a briefcase and maybe a cup of coffee.
– Airports are designed to accommodate a single point of entry. Airport infrastructure is designed for a single point of entrance into the secured area where pre-screened passengers can move about freely. While this has changed slightly since 9/11(formerly, you could walk Grandma to the departure gate to say goodbye), there has long been a single point of flow. Most rail hubs don’t have a secured area, much less the space to carve one out. Train stations vary drastically across the country, meaning that for every modernized station, there is another that is even less friendly to security hoops. In many stations, there are multiple entry and exit points—meaning that perfectly legitimate passengers may use any number of doors for a variety of purposes—making it difficult to discern a good traveler from bad traveler.
– Airports serve as airports. In fact, most people visiting an airport are employees, passengers, or people picking up/dropping off passengers. Rail stations on the other hand often serve a multitude of purposes—with food courts accommodating outside guests, shopping, movie theaters, meetings, events, conferences and even wedding receptions. Union Station in Washington, D.C., for example, is like a mini-shopping mall and a tremendous source of tourism dollars. These activities don’t include a number of other transportation modes like light rail, Greyhound and similar buses that use train stations as their own place of arrival and departure.
Most annoyingly, a Do Not Ride list would ruin train travel as we know it. As fellow Security Debrief contributor Dan Kaniewski emphasized, “Rail would no longer be desirable from a users’ standpoint.” Passengers often use train travel because it is an appealing alternative to the exhausting series of hoops one must go through to travel by air. This is also why thousands of people use trains to commute to work on a daily basis. Imagine commuting under a Do Not Ride scenario—you now have to arrive three hours early, take off your shoes and your lunch must be less than four ounces.
Such a system would likely require TSA to double its force, with hundreds of officers at each rail station. Pre-screening without the security to back it up is useless, because there is nothing to make sure that the guy on the Do Not Ride list doesn’t just avoid security and ride anyway. In true Schumer form, the Senator has requested more money as part of this proposal—including $50 million that was cut from rail security grant funding, and additional subsidies for high-speed rail, an even worse financial disaster that will cost taxpayers millions. The investments that would be necessary to make rail stations the security equivalent of airports would come at a tremendous price on top of subsidies at a time where the nation can ill-afford it.
A better alternative is to deal with rail as it is, meaning embracing it as an easy means of travel that is also, like many other types of infrastructure, a potential terrorist target. Investments in law enforcement information sharing and intelligence will help stop plots against rail before the public is in danger. This can work. We took down a bomb plot last year against the DC Metro, a target even more difficult to harden than Amtrak.
Schumer suggests this “shouldn’t be difficult to do.” Maybe in a world with unlimited resources and travelers with unlimited time and patience. That isn’t, however, the world we live in.