Getting on the Security Train

Watch P.J. Crowley discuss rail security (YouTube.com)

The Senate this week will consider much-needed legislation that would strengthen the security of the nation’s rail transportation systems, and energy and hazardous material distribution networks. These systems are vital to the day-to-day functioning of the U.S. economy and society, yet many key security measures taken since 9/11 have only scratched the surface.

The Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act of 2007 (S.184) would take positive steps toward making America safer, including:

  • Enabling Amtrak and other passenger rail systems to strengthen security in and around rail stations, tunnels (particularly those in New York City), and car barns; add police officers and canine units; and improve communications and preparedness in the event of an attack.
  • Requiring the Department of Homeland Security to assess vulnerabilities associated with the movement of hazardous materials on freight rail lines—many of which flow through the heart of major cities—and plan how to reroute hazardous material away from urban centers and critical infrastructure (such as the U.S. Capitol) in the event of a homeland alert.
  • Modifying freight rail cars to reduce the risk of a HAZMAT release in the event of an attack or accident, improving communications and tracking equipment that monitors freight and passenger flow, and strengthening transportation worker training.
  • Developing improved remote tracking capability to detect irregularities involving HAZMAT trucks or remote sensing equipment for leaks within natural gas or hazardous liquid pipelines, along with planning for rapid repairs and alternative routing for essential markets.

Successful attacks on passenger rail systems in Madrid and London in recent years have made passenger rail systems a major security concern, although transit infrastructure has always been a favorite global terrorist target because it is designed to be accessible.

A sustained police presence in rail stations and on platforms, plus access controls to rail yards, is arguably the best possible defense. The use of closed circuit television may not prevent an attack, but as was the case in London, it can help authorities rapidly identify and capture the perpetrators of an attack, minimizing its impact.

Although the Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act includes measures to tighten these forms of security, it again passed up the opportunity to measurably improve the security of hazardous materials distributed around the country by rail, truck, and pipeline. The bill requires the Departments of Homeland Security and Transportation to catalog these risks, but not eliminate any of them.

The bill does not, for example, allow the government to encourage the private sector to adopt more secure alternatives that would remove as much HAZMAT as possible from the freight rail system—a missed opportunity similar to watered-down chemical security legislation that passed by Congress in September. Ironically, the Association of American Railroads has endorsed such an approach, although not the chemical industry.

The legislation does recognize the need to reroute hazardous material away from critical infrastructure and out of urban centers in the event of a crisis, yet there are two problems with such an approach. In this age of self-starters with no evident prior links to jihad, it is unlikely that we will have warning of the next attack. As a result, a sound homeland security strategy really requires the government to consider what it will do after the next attack—reducing our reliance on hazardous chemicals and rerouting what we cannot eliminate away from heavily populated areas and inviting critical infrastructure targets—and to take those steps before the next attack.

When it comes to homeland security and national preparedness, Congress should approve legislation that not only protects the status quo, but also changes it for the better when possible.

The Surface Transportation and Rail Security Act is a good first step, but rail and chemical security require further action. The Senate must pass additional legislation to provide funding for the programs outlined in the legislation. And if we are serious about making America safer, we must pass forward-thinking legislation that seeks to eliminate threats before they happen.

For more information on how to make America safer, see: