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Do you think the United States needs to take efforts to improve the safety of transportation systems? If so, what do you propose?

Discussion Leader: 
Posted Date: 09/28/2015

This week's question is centered around a recently published HDIAC Spotlight on transportation security, Spotlight: Railway Security Concerns Increasing for Travelers and Military Logistic Planners. With the recent attempted attack on the Paris metro and continuing threats to Israeli bus systems, many Americans are concerned with safety on United States transportation systems.

Evolving technologies make trains safer, but railways still cause homeland security concerns. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Transportation)


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In order to provide an adequate level of security for public commuter systems, technologies must be employed. One technology will not be as effective as multimodal systems. A combination of biometric capture system and automated video response would enable security officers to tighten their focus on a small group and/or person of interest. This type of security, in addition to sensor technologies for detection of CBRN materials should reduce the risk of homegrown terror attacks on public transportation systems. Due to technology and implementation costs, the price of commuter services would increase, resulting in diminished use of public transit. There will always be a cost for increased security and unfortunately, there will always be risk.

I agree with the above comment, no matter how much money is devoted to increasing public transportation security, those who want to do us harm will still find a way. However, this doesn't mean that we can't implement security measures in order to make an attack difficult. Due to the many attacks on rail systems globally, I definitely think there needs to be better security on protecting our rail infrastructure nationally due to the interconnectivity within this infrastructure and between the transportation sector and other sectors of the economy. One attack has the ability to create a huge cascading effect, ultimately impacting the lives of many. I propose that government agencies and the private sector need to work together to continue to train individuals to conduct vulnerability assessments and emergency drills, and continuing to develop surveillance and detection technologies to alert individuals of suspicious activity.

As stated above, there are always going to be risks of an attack regardless of how much money and resources we throw at prevention methods. One major advantage for the United States is that public transportation is still less commonly utilized than in European or Asian cities, especially in the less densely populated areas. This greatly reduces the number of potential targets. Secondly, as with most terrorist attacks, the goal is to spread fear and affect as many people as possible. This is more likely to take place at an area such as New York City or Washington D.C. due to the number of commuters and the high values of each city. Both of these cities are fully aware of their heightened risks, and have previously stepped up security.

It is not best to focus all attention to high profile cities only, that would indeed leave exploitable gaps. However, security levels and protection should directly coincide with the likeliness of an attack in any given city's public transport.

As I look at the issue with security on rail systems, I am more concerned about someone trying to take out cargo and shipment lines than passenger rail. I think we need more security in place on these rail modes because attacks or disasters on several east to west cargo lines could devestate the economy. Security systems need to be able to find CBRN agents as well as identify suspicious people. Rail security seems to need an overarching revamping. That's not to say we don't need additional security on passenger rail, but I think that will be more difficult to do in a cost effective manner that keeps the price of transit affordable. 

The short answer to the question is "Yes!". No matter the safety system put in place, there is always room for improvement. Of course, challenges to safety concerns within the various United States transporation systems are very complex. Solutions to safety vulnerabilities should be carefully considered and encompass multiple technologies. What is most important is to be aware of where vulnerabilities are in regards to specific transportation systems and even geographical areas. Commuter trains, subways, etc. in large metropolitan areas will have different vulnerabilities than are in the airline industry or interstate systems of less populous areas of the country. What works in one area, may be less effective in another. When planning and implementing safety programs, these differences must be taken into consideration to increase the chance of success.

I think that the Department of Homeland Security needs to revise their stance on this issue and become more proactive in this area, especially on the cargo rail front. The position of the government up to now has been to allow private industry to provide security measures on all privately owned infrastructure such as railroad tracks, bridges, and train switching yards. Much of this has been neglected due to the short term economic concerns of rail service providers who do not see the financial benefit of putting extra security safeguards in place. A program of security mandates to close vulnerability gaps along with an extension of the grant program already in place from DHS to help offset the cost of new technological advances in security systems would enhance the safety of the American rail system with less negative economic impact due to increased transportation costs.

Chandler White

Safety is dynamic and always changing. New threats emerge every day and current protocols my not always be equipped to handle it. This is why it is imperative that we always assess the threats and employ the most up to date technology available. I think the United States can take steps to improve the safety of transportation by identifying the current threats and mandating new and improved safety standards. The railway system in the United States is used mainly to transport cargo nationally. If there were any disturbance in the system this could disrupt business and effect the economy negatively. Well placed safety protocols can help prevent or minimize the effects of an attack on the United States railway system.