Based on intelligence indicating that Al Qaeda and associated movements continue to express interest in attacking US mass transit systems, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has issued a redacted version of a classified report on “explosives detection technologies [that] are available or in development that could help secure passenger rail systems.”
However, GAO noted that “while these technologies show promise in certain environments, their potential limitations in the rail environment need to be considered and their use tailored to individual rail systems.”
In its report, Explosives Detection Technologies to Protect Passenger Rail, GAO did not make any specific recommendations, but it did raise “various policy considerations.”
For example, in addition to how well technologies detect explosives, GAO consultated with rail and technology experts to identify “several key operational and policy considerations impacting the role that these technologies can play in securing the passenger rail environment.
“Specifically,” GAO reported, “while there is a shared responsibility for securing the passenger rail environment, the federal government, including [the Transportation Security Administration, TSA], and passenger rail operators have differing roles, which could complicate decisions to fund and implement explosives detection technologies. For example, TSA provides guidance and some funding for passenger rail security, but rail operators themselves provide day-to-day-security of their systems.”
“In addition,” GAO noted, “risk management principles could be used to guide decision-making related to technology and other security measures and target limited resources to those areas at greatest risk. Moreover, securing passenger rail involves multiple security measures, with explosives detection technologies just one of several components that policymakers can consider as part of the overall security environment.”
GAO stated that “developing a concept of operations for using these technologies and responding to threats that they may identify would help balance security with the need to maintain the efficient and free flowing movement of people,” and added that “a concept of operations could include a response plan for how rail employees should react to an alarm when a particular technology detects an explosive.”
Finally, GAO reported that “in determining whether and how to implement these technologies, federal agencies and rail operators will likely be confronted with challenges related to the costs and potential privacy and legal implications of using explosives detection technologies.”
Day-to-day responsibility for securing passenger rail systems falls on passenger rail operators, local law enforcement, and state and local governments that own portions of the infrastructure.
While several entities play a role in helping to fund and secure passenger rail systems, TSA is the primary federal agency responsible for overseeing security for these systems and for developing a national strategy and implementing programs to enhance their security.
The Department of Transportation’s (DoT) Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) also provide support to rail operators by providing technical assistance in conducting threat and vulnerability assessments and developing and providing training courses for rail operators.
Additionally, there are several other DHS components that conduct threat and vulnerability assessments of passenger rail systems, research and develop security technologies for these systems, and develop security training programs for passenger rail employees.
GAO reported in June 2009 on federal and industry efforts to secure passenger rail systems and made recommendations for strengthening these efforts. “DHS generally agreed with these recommendations and is taking action to implement them,” GAO said in its new report.
"To date, US passenger rail systems have not been attacked by terrorists," GAO pointed out, "however, according to [the Department of Homeland Security, DHS], terrorists’ effective use of IEDs in rail attacks elsewhere in the world suggests that IEDs pose the greatest threat to US rail systems."
"Rail systems in the United States have also received heightened attention as several alleged terrorists’ plots have been uncovered, including multiple plots against systems in the New York City area," GAO noted, adding, "worldwide, passenger rail systems have been the frequent target of terrorist attacks."
According to the Worldwide Incidents Tracking System maintained by the National Counter Terrorism Center, from January 2004 through July 2008 there were 530 terrorist attacks worldwide against passenger rail targets, resulting in more than 2,000 deaths and more than 9,000 injuries.