When the leadership of the House Homeland Security Committee
outlined the priorities for this year, beefing up security for
freight and passenger rail stood at the top of its agenda. This was
a poor choice. Rather than requiring action from Congress, rail
security is one area in which legislators should show
restraint and patience.
The federal government has only recently completed a national
vulnerability assessment of the rail system, issued additional
regulations, developed new law enforcement support teams,
and allocated millions for rail security training, planning, and
exercises. Instead of throwing more money and laws at the problem,
Members of Congress should focus on their oversight
responsibility, ensuring that these programs are being
implemented efficiently and effectively.
Dealing with the Danger du Jour. After the terrorist
railroad bombings in London and Madrid, Congress fixated on
addressing the vulnerabilities of the American rail system.
Focusing myopically on specific threats, such as a terrorist attack
on a U.S. train, is a grave mistake. America is a vast nation with
millions of people and trillions of dollars of infrastructure.
Not everything can be "hardened" to the point that terrorists
will be deterred, and hardening one target to the exclusion of
everything else will not stop terrorists. This is the irrefutable
finding of "Breaching the Fortress Wall: Understanding Terrorist
Efforts to Overcome Defensive Technologies," a recent study by
the RAND Corporation, a nonprofit, non-partisan research
institution. Lead author Brian Jackson observed:
The most important point we found is that terrorist
organizations keep changing their strategies in order to
remain effective, and we have to design our defense capabilities to
adapt. If we don't, we risk spending our resources building the
equivalent of a fortress wall that won't actually provide much
protection once terrorists have found a way over, under, through or
Throwing more money and rules at rail security is a good example
of a bad idea: buying into the notion that building a "fortress
wall" will make us safer.
Rather than stopping terrorists, overly investing in rail
security will simply waste scarce homeland security dollars and
resources. In addition, imposing unnecessary restrictions on
the rail industry will make it less competitive and less efficient,
which will mean higher prices on the many goods and services
that are moved by rail.
Understanding the Vulnerabilities. Much of the misplaced
emphasis on further beefing up rail security can be justified
only by ignoring reality. Here are the facts:
Fact #1: The rail system cannot be made
invulnerable. The United States has over 140,000 miles of
rail track and millions of freight and passenger railcars. Trying
to protect everything would be extremely difficult and expensive.
The system's greatest vulnerabilities are cars containing
lethal hazardous materials and crowded commuter cars and stations.
Even if these vulnerabilities could be completely addressed, a
determined terrorist could still attack the U.S. rail system. If
such an attack did occur, Americans would still be greatly
unsettled, fixating on why expensive security failed rather than on
how security protected more tempting targets.
Fact #2: The risks are modest. While trains move over 1.2
million containers of hazardous material, less than 10 percent
carry chemicals that could immediately endanger large numbers of
people under any conditions. True, in some scenarios, a terrorist
attack could put thousands at risk. For example, a catastrophic
rupture of a chlorine container (less than 1 percent of total
cargo) could sicken and kill thousands. However, such a
catastrophe would require perfect conditions: a
stationary car, ideal temperature and wind to spread the gas,
no alerts or evacuation after the incident, a terrorist who
knows exactly when and where to attack and how to breach the
container with exactly the right amount of explosives to release
the gas quickly without consuming the gas in the explosion.
Terrorists would find building and driving a truck bomb into a
city center much easier and more dependable. Of course, they might
be willing to accept less than perfect results and attack a train
anyway, but the effects of such a strike would be no different from
the effects of a normal hazardous material incident. These are
risks Americans live with every day. While U.S. rail and mass
transit have commendable safety records, they are not perfect.
Derailments, industrial accidents, and even malicious acts
happen. While these events are tragic, hazardous material teams and
emergency responders are trained to deal with them, and most
emergency professionals would argue that transporting
extremely hazardous materials by train is far safer than
transporting them by truck. Train accidents are less common, and
isolating and managing the scene of a train accident is usually
Since its establishment, the Department of Homeland
Security (DHS) has moved deliberately to adopt measures to improve
rail security, including issuing new regulations to freight
carriers, providing homeland security grants for training,
conducting risk assessments, and undertaking planning, exercises,
and inspections. In addition, the department has developed and
trained assets within the DHS that can be deployed to high-risk
areas when the threat warrants additional security. These
measures address the most practical, common-sense initiatives that
can be employed to reduce risks.
The other major risk is to mass transit systems. Again, the most
effective means to counter this danger is common-sense
security and policing measures. Federal homeland security
grants for rail security (over $573 million for this year alone)
are designed specifically to address these needs. This includes
developing countermeasures similar to those employed throughout
Europe after the Madrid and London bombings.
Securing the Nation. The best way to prevent a terrorist
attack is to stop terrorists before they can strike. This requires
good counterterrorism and intelligence programs, and that is where
the federal government should focus its efforts. Regarding
infrastructure like rail and mass transit systems, government and
the private sector should continue to work together to take
reasonable precautions that enhance public safety and security.
Meanwhile, Congress should focus less on doing more and more on
providing oversight of ongoing programs.
James Jay Carafano,
Ph.D., is Assistant Director of the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis
Institute for International Studies and Senior Research Fellow for
National Security and Homeland Security in the Douglas and Sarah
Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies at The Heritage