Old World Rails, New World Lessons

Parked outside one of the portals of the 6.4-mile-long Arlberg Tunnel in western Austria, on the main rail route between Vienna, Austria, and Zurich, Switzerland, is an expensive string of railcars that the Austrian Federal Railways hopes it will never need.
It’s one of the railroad’s tunnel rescue trains, consisting of special, low-profile cars (in case of a damaged tunnel ceiling) loaded with firefighting, breathing and medical supplies, in addition to a wide range of rescue tools. In case of trouble, emergency responders and railroad workers would proceed into the tunnel on this train.
Meanwhile, in rail yards throughout Austria, you will find tank cars painted bright red, with a special white “F” insignia. These are firefighting cars, kept filled with water and equipped with hose fittings compatible with the equipment used by fire departments.
It’s not just the normal emergencies and operating crises that Austrians were thinking about when they established these emergency resources—terrorism was on their minds, too. Today, in aftermath of the July 7 bombings in London, Americans are taking a new look at rail security and European practices may hold solutions to challenges in the New World.
Nominally a politically neutral country, Austria may not be the first place Americans think about as a target for terrorism. But Austria suffered two key incidents long before most Americans began to think about terrorism: On Dec. 21, 1975, six terrorists attacked a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) in Vienna, resulting in two deaths—that of a delegate and that of a security man. On Dec. 27, 1985, three Abu Nidal terrorists attacked the El Al ticket counter at the Vienna airport, killing three people and wounding 30.
Austria’s approach is typical of the way that railroads and rail transit systems all over Europe deal with security and safety issues—take reasonable security measures to protect key installations and the places through which large numbers of people flow, but, beyond that, be well prepared to deal with any kind of emergency.
European railroads often stage practice operations with local emergency responders—something that is only beginning to be seen as being of value in America.
In some cases, European fire departments have even acquired hi-rail (highway-rail) vehicles—rubber-tired highway vehicles equipped with retractable-flanged steel wheels, which enable them to run on rails. (These types of vehicles are used worldwide by railroads and transit systems for maintenance and inspection functions.) The hi-rail vehicles of the fire departments would be used on rails only with the permission and at the request of the railroad or transit system. But they provide an additional means for emergency responders to reach remote locations on railroad tracks, whether in an urban tunnel or on a mountain line far from roads.
European rail systems have been dealing with security and emergency-preparedness issues for a long time. There are lessons here that Americans can learn as they face their own rail security vulnerabilities.
The rail sectors
Many Americans, if they think of rail security at all, see it as a single issue, when there are at least three sectors, each of which has its own security and safety issues.
Rail transit, which itself has several subsectors, moves large numbers of people over short distances. Both trains and stations at times have an extremely high density of people.
Long-distance passenger rail consists of trains that go between cities, covering large distances, but typically carrying fewer passengers than transit operations. In most cases, intercity passenger trains use the same routes used by freight railroads.
Freight rail moves all types of goods and is probably the least understood by the general public, which has little interaction with this mode.
When it comes to passenger rail, Europe has made some significant strides.
In June 2004, two of the world’s largest railroad trade groups, the International Association of Public Transport (UITP, the initials of its French name) and the International Union of Railways (UIC, also initials based on its French name), issued a joint declaration on terrorism following a conference on Personal Security in Public Transport. UITP represents rail-based transit systems; the UIC represents railroads that operate freight trains and long-distance passenger trains. Both have worldwide memberships.
That declaration made several key points:

  • Passenger rail operations are a potential target for terrorists, because they offer high concentrations of people.
  • With high passenger flows, it is impractical, if not impossible, to conduct security checks foreach passenger.
  • Passenger rail systems have an obligation to make detailed assessments of vulnerabilities, because they understand their operations better than any outside party.
  • Overall security for passenger rail systems needs to be handled by civilian authorities.

“Even if the threat of terrorism cannot be completely stamped out,” UITP President Wolfgang Meyer said, “it is possible to make significant progress by effectively coordinating and organizing the prevention and management of threats.”
His counterpart at the UIC, Benedikt Weibel, called for “international collaboration and exchange of experience” in responding to threats.
In the United States, much of the security scrutiny of freight rail has focused on the transportation of hazardous goods, which range from acids to poisonous gases. Despite a few spectacular incidents, the vast majority of these goods move without incident, and movement by rail is considered far safer than movement by highway. Many of these hazardous products are vital to industrial processes and even public safety, with chlorine, for example, being used to treat public water supplies.
Much less scrutiny is given to the potential for major economic disruption—and the impact on national security—if one or more key US rail lines are disrupted.
At the same time, years of low investment in new or upgraded infrastructure and an upturn in the American economy left many of America’s rail corridors at or near capacity by mid-2005. Major disruptions on one or more corridors would leave few options for detouring trains.
Europe’s advantages
European railroads, though they typically operate with shorter freight trains and have much more restrictive clearances than most American main lines, have two major advantages in the areas of security and resiliency.
Europe’s rail network, particularly in central and western Europe, is much denser than in the United States. Not only do most main lines have double track (with some routes having as many as four main-line tracks, a rarity in the US), there are many more opportunities to detour traffic around problem sites, regardless of the cause of the incident.
Europe’s rail network is still much more labor intensive. And many of these employees are spread out along the routes. Even insmall towns where passenger trains no longer stop, the stations have been retained by railroads as living quarters and offices for locally based employees who, while on duty, visually inspect every passing train and are much more likely to notice any unusual activity in their sectors.
On the other hand, most of the American transcontinental rail routes are still single-track, with widely spaced passing sidings. While tracks are inspected periodically, the number of employees per mile of track, particularly in desert or mountain areas, is much lower.
Privately owned railroads in the United States seriously cut back infrastructure in the 1970s and early 1980s to save maintenance costs (and property taxes) during a period of declining traffic and profits. They single-tracked many previously double-track lines.
Only portions of the removed double track have been restored, while some other lines, which could have provided alternate routings for rail traffic, have been abandoned or sold or leased to shortlines. In most cases, the shortlines and regional railroads, with their lower traffic density, have not maintained these lines to the standards needed for fast-moving, closely spaced, heavy freight trains.
A capacity Catch-22
One problem that confronts American railroads is the fact that trying to expand capacity initially decreases capacity—a serious situation for lines already at or near maximum traffic levels. Building a new rail line or adding a second or third track to an existing rail line requires huge quantities of raw materials, ranging from quarter-mile-long sections of rail to many tons of gravel. The best way to bring in these materials is by rail.
The track laying and alignment process uses a large number of machines, which operate on the tracks themselves but are capable of only slow speeds. During track-building operations, these machines fill up nearby sidings, and switching operations to get the right machine to a new segment of track takes up main-line track capacity.
“We rely critically on infrastructure—including rail infrastructure—that is too ill-maintained and certainly not robust enough in capacity nor redundancy, and this represents a real Achilles heel of sorts to our enemies,” reported Hank Chase, a professional engineer and consultant on security issues working for Smart and Associates who has advised the US government, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), on infrastructure security issues.
Emergency response in a rail environment
What can America do to guarantee its rail security? For starters, emergency responders need equipment that works in a rail environment, whether in the tunnels of an urban transit system, or out on the main lines of the freight railroads. Much of the existing firefighting and rescue equipment is simply not compatible with that environment.
In some cases, equipment can be adapted. In others, special equipment may need to be built, as in the case of Austria’s tunnel rescue trains. Other countries have seen this as a useful investment.
Even such simple items as carts with flanged wheels that can be carried by several firefighters and then manually pushed down tracks can help get heavy equipment to some scenes.
Meanwhile, almost everyone in the railroad and rail transit sectors has pointed to the fact that, since Sept. 11, 2001, vastly more money has been spent on aviation security than on transit and railroad security—though many more Americans use transit each day than fly. They also note that disruptions in rail freight service could affect many more people than the temporary shutdown of all aviation following the 9/11 attacks.
“In the president’s budget for 2005, there was $5 billion for aviation security and only $150 million for rail security,” consultant Chase pointed out, adding, “These figures were exactly the same for the 2006 budget.”
William W. Millar, president of the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the industry trade group that represents the systems that are used by an estimated 14 million Americans on weekdays, said it was easy for the government to mandate increases in security. But, he added, these additional measures are costly. “Every day on Orange Alert costs transit systems at least $900,000,” the APTA president said.
Following the second series of incidents in London in late July, Millar pointed to the small amounts being spent by the federal government on transit security and complained, “The federal government has not chosen to make public transportation security a priority. … At this point, with the attacks in London over the past two weeks, there is simply no excuse for a lack of action.”
The Association of American Railroads has voiced similar complaints on behalf of its freight railroad members.
Analysis: Looking ahead
US experts and officials concerned with rail security in both the public and private sectors need to look beyond points of vulnerability to the questions of resiliency and economic impact. In many cases, that requires stepping back and looking at the bigger picture.
For transit systems, that may mean giving higher priority to interconnections between existing lines that would make detours around a problem location easier. Rail companies also need to make sure that emergency responders understand the operation of their systems and can access all of that system, whether in tunnels or on elevated rights of way.
Since most accidents and almost any kind of attack would interrupt electric power feeds for rail-based transit (or require it to be shut off for the safe evacuation of passengers or access by responders), systemsneed to ensure they have sufficient equipment not dependent on outside electrical power. And that equipment, whether owned by the transit system or by the local emergency services, has to be stationed at locations that allow it quick access to the site of an emergency.
Freight railroads need to be viewed as a national system, rather than individual private entities. Working with federal agencies such as the Department of Transportation and
DHS, trade groups representing multiple railroads need to look not only at vulnerable infrastructure, but at how to get around possible problems, regardless of their causes.
This may require that, instead of spending funds only on guarding specific locations, funds are also allocated to building additional interconnections between lines of different railroads—and building (or upgrading) these interconnections so that they can be taken by heavy freight trains operating at normal speeds. In some cases, adding infrastructure may be the best investment in securing the future against disasters.
Because America’s railroads are private corporations, their managements cannot justify big spending simply on possible future contingencies. The federal government could assist in a number of ways, from direct grants for projects to low-interest loans or by simply guaranteeing loans for complex projects.
New railroad tunnels can cost in the billion-dollar range, but because a single-track tunnel through a key mountain range represents a choke point on a key transcontinental line, it may make more sense to spend money on additional infrastructure that provides an alternative route, rather than just guarding and securing existing infrastructure.
That may be a tough sell to both railroads and the government, with railroads valuing their independence from government influence and the government’s reluctance to spend money that directly benefits private corporations but there are precedents. Conditions for approval of some mergers have included allowing a competing railroad access to a route owned by one of the merging railroads.
If a look at the big picture shows that a case can be made for additional transportation capacity on a transcontinental route, steps can be taken to ensure that more than one railroad benefits from whatever federal spending is allocated for that purpose.
Sooneror later, America’s enemies will figure out that their attacks can not only kill and injure people but also cause massive economic disruptions, which, in the long run, affect far more people. So, just as steps can be taken to try to prevent injury to passengers, steps also need to be taken to try to prevent major injury to the American economy. HST
Ernest H. Robl is a North Carolina-based writer and photographer who has long specialized in transportation subjects. Born in Vienna, Austria, he has spent time on railroads and transit systems on both sides of the Atlantic, talking to managers and employees at all levels. He is the author of more than two dozen magazine articles on rail-related subjects and several books, including one on railroads in the Powder River Basin.
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Rail wrangle in Congress
With the July 7 attack on the London subway less than a week old, the US Senate defeated efforts to spend an additional $1 billion to secure American mass transit systems, despite recurring warnings from Congress’ own Government Accountability Office and terrorist experts inside and outside the government.
The vote came despite calls from both Democrats and Republicans for increased funding for mass transit security.
Nonetheless, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff stated that funding would remain as currently requested, given the relative threats, vulnerabilities and consequences of attacks on different modes of transportation.
“The truth of the matter is, a fully loaded airplane with jet fuel, a commercial airliner, has the capacity to kill 3,000 people,” Chertoff said. “A bomb in a subway car may kill 30people. When you start to think about your priorities, you’re going to think about making sure you don’t have a catastrophic thing first.”
Chertoff also stated that rail security was the responsibility of the states and localities, rather than the federal government.
Sen. Charles “Chuck” Schumer (D-NY) quickly called on Chertoff to apologize and retract his statements immediately.
“The fundamental responsibility of the federal government is to prevent terrorism at home, whether it occurs in the air, on the rails or in the water,” Schumer said in a statement e-mailed and faxed to the media.” And those that seek to do us harm look for our most vulnerable places – our weakest pressure points. Right now those points are the ‘soft-underbelly’ of our bus and train systems – the places that clearly become the terrorists’ favorite target. To simply wash the federal government’s hands of responsibility at a time when this administration is cutting back on mass-transit funding and localities have very little money is an appalling abrogation of responsibility,” Schumer declared.
“We’ve been spending pennies as far as transit security,” added Sen. Richard Shelby, the Alabama Republican who led the fight for more mass-transit security to the chagrin of his party peers.
Also outraged by Chertoff’s remarks were New York City subway riders. Gene Russianoff, staff attorney for the Straphangers Campaign, told the Associated Press that Chertoff understated the risks posed by mass transit. “He obviously doesn’t ride the train,” Russianoff said of Chertoff. “It’s staggering what damage an explosion might do at Grand Central or Penn Station … the real risks are in transit. It just couldn’t be clearer than day.”
The American Public Transportation Association also weighed in on the issue. “London was a wake-up call,” said Greg Hull, director of operations, safety and security programs. “We don’t need any more wake-up calls. What we need is funding.”
The dispute over funding of rail and transit security isn’t over, though. The Senate’s version of the FY 2006 HS budget must still be reconciled with the House’s version, and that’s where the battle over this hotly debated issue will be decided. As of this writing, members of the House seemed inclined to substantively boost rail and transit security funding. With advocates of increased rail security funding likely to staff the House-Senate conference committee that hammers out the final homeland security budget, some boost in rail funding was widely expected on Capitol Hill. 
—Anthony Kimery, senior correspondent
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The case of the Powder River Basin
To see just how disrupted the US economy could be by a crisis on the rails, one should look to the Powder River Basin (PRB) in eastern Wyoming and southern Montana.
Most of America’s low-sulfur coal (preferred by power plants because it requires fewer pollution-abatement measures) comes from the area. Despite a population density that is in the single digits per square mile in much of this region, the PRB (and its surrounding area) has the highest freight-train density of any part of the United States, consisting mostly of coal trains.
In May 2005, several derailments, attributed to natural causes and mechanical failures, damaged substantial sections of track in the region. Though emergency repairs quickly reopened the affected lines, more permanent repairs, allowing traffic to run at normal speeds, required some of these tracks to be taken out of service for long periods of time.
The downtime for repairs cut into coal transport capacity so sufficiently that, in July, two major electrical utility units of Xcel Energy Inc. told the Surface Transportation Board (STB) that generating plants were beginning to run short of coal, and there were warnings that these shortages could lead to brownouts during the peak consumption periods of July and August.
Union Pacific (UP), America’s largest railroadin terms of mileage, began rationing coal deliveries to customers, with UP President Dick Davidson telling customers in a letter “to expect to receive about 80 to 85 percent of the tons they had estimated.”
As the Powder River Basin example shows, America’s railroad infrastructure has very little redundancy. Two dozen important coal mines are clustered along a single rail corridor in eastern Wyoming that is shared by BNSF Railway and UP. That corridor is now entirely double-track, with sections of triple track, but is still at or near capacity much of the time.
A third railroad (in addition to BNSF and UP), the Dakota, Minnesota, and Eastern (DM&E), is now trying to build its own line into the Powder River Basin coal fields. But that new line, proposed many years ago, has been bogged down by the permitting process and by critics who did not want the line going through their area or who did not believe that the additional capacity was needed.

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