How does a no-ride list make sense?

| Comments (4) | Misc Security: Airport
MSNBC (from Reuters) reports that Sen. Charles Schumer wants Amtrak to create a "no-ride" list for trains (þ Volokh):
Schumer, citing U.S. intelligence analysts, said attacks were also considered on Christmas and New Year's Day and following the president's State of the Union address.

He called on the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to expand the Secure Flight monitoring program, which cross-checks air travelers with the terror watch list in an attempt to prevent anyone on the "no-fly list" from boarding, for use on Amtrak.

Such a procedure would create an Amtrak "no-ride list" to keep suspected terrorists off the U.S. rail system, he said.

This is one of those situations where reasoning by analogy can lead you seriously astray. Airplanes are an unusual case not so much because they are uniquely vulnerable, but because they are uniquely secure. It's true that planes are relatively fragile in that a small amount of explosive can kill a lot of people, and that even small accidends tend to kill everyone. [This is only a partially unique property, though, so a full account of why planes are such an attractive target surely needs to involve some social and psychological factors.] However, they are also ordinarily well protected, so it's hard to get access to them to do damage. At least in theory planes are kept in secure conditions on the ground so it's hard to place a bomb, and obviously once they're in the air it takes something like a surface-to-air missile (or least good luck with a gun) to cause catastrophic damage. This means that if you want to attack a plane, it's very convenient to actually be on it, so it's at least arguably useful to keep suspected terrorists off the plane.

But this doesn't apply to trains, which are (a) not particularly well secured and (b) easily accessible when they are in transit, which means you need to secure hundreds of miles of track. This means that if you want to attack a train, you don't need to be on it, you just need to get access to the track and damage it at the right time. (See here for a list of train accidents). It's like these guys have never seen Bridge on the River Kwai.

Even if that weren't true, it's important to remember that while planes are already a limited-access type thing, trains often are not. Amtrak may do some kind of passenger identification there are lots of commuter trains (e.g., Caltrain) where that not only aren't passengers identified, you can get on the train without a ticket. Instead, the conductors just come by periodically and audit. Converting to a system where you actually checked ID for each passenger before they got on (and remember that something like 50-100 people might get on in 2 minutes on an open platform) seems like it would be prohibitively expensive. These trains don't carry as many people as some Amtrak trains, but they certainly have enough passengers that if you could kill a significant fraction of them it would be bad. And this doesn't even get into the question of subways. In general, train security is set at a level designed to deter fare evasion, not to protect the train itself.

Even if you think that airplane security is set at an appropriate level (which IMHO it probably isn't) this seems like a security measure which comes at a huge amount of cost and very little benefit.

4 Comments

To shoot a plane out of the sky from the ground with a gun, you need more than good luck.

As for checking ID on Amtrak, I've never had them do that. Every Amtrak train I have ever been on is boarded in the manner you describe above. IDs are not checked for boarding, and tickets are almost never checked before the train starts moving.

This is a very stupid idea, to be expected from a US Senator who probably has never ridden a train and, when he is not flying in private planes, is allowed to bypass airport security.

And, changing train boarding procedures to something TSA-style leads to big, congested areas of waiting passengers that become a target. (Which baffles me about airports...the line at a place like DEN seems like a disaster waiting to happen.)

My understanding is that generating large numbers of fatalities in a train or bus is actually very difficult compared to on an airplane. In the latter case, if you get a reasonable explosion off, then the entire plane falls out of the sky, and everyone aboard is pretty much guaranteed to die. In a train or bus, on the other hand, death has to result from the actual blast or schrapnel, plus maybe a few extra from the subsequent derailment/crash, and that limits the death toll significantly.

The ten explosions on the Spanish rail system in 2004, for example, netted 191 deaths in total, while the four subway/bus bombs in London in 2005 resulted in 52 dead non-terrorists. The four airplanes hijacked on 9/11, on the other hand, yielded about 250 non-terrorist passenger deaths, and that was on flights deliberately chosen to be relatively empty. In general, then, a bombed flight can be expected to yield at least ten times as many fatalities as a bombed train or bus. So to equalize target attractiveness, bombing an airplane has to be roughly as difficult as coordinating ten train bombings.

(Of course, bus and train bombings also result in numerous injuries--about 1800, in the case of the Spanish rail bombings. But my impression is that it's the death toll that really catches the attention of both terrorists and their potential victims.)

I think I could cause a pretty big death tool on the US railways if I were to drop a sufficiently large mass onto the track just in front of the train. Which I probably could do with a few chainsaws.

The question is why no one has tried this.

Leave a comment