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Geopolitics

After French High-Speed Rail Attack, Time To Step Up Train Security?

Police officers patrol the Brussels Midi station in the capital of Belgium on Aug. 23, 2015.
Police officers patrol the Brussels Midi station in the capital of Belgium on Aug. 23, 2015.
Patrick Randall

PARIS — The suspected terror attack thwarted by American and British passengers aboard a high-speed European train has brought railway security sharply into focus. The alleged gunman, believed to be a 25-year-old Moroccan named Ayob El Khazzani, boarded the Amsterdam-to-Paris train equipped with an assault rifle, automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter. More than a decade after the 2004 Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people, and days after what could have been another such massacre, how can authorities in Europe and across the world rethink railway security? Here are five key points to bear in mind:

TRAIN STATIONS ARE NOT AIRPORTS

Airport security around the world became much tougher after 9/11, with stricter baggage, body and identity checks. In the wake of Friday's foiled attack, Belgium said it will increase baggage checks and patrols on high-speed trains and France announced it will set up an emergency hotline to report "abnormal situations." But can airport security be extended to train stations? Not according to the head of the French national railway company SNCF Guillaume Pepy, who describes such measures in the near future as "unrealistic," as the AFP reports. "There's a choice," he explained: Either you aim for comprehensive security and low (transport) efficiency, or less security and more efficiency. France has some 3,000 train stations, most of which were built during the 19th and 20th centuries — when today's terrorism was unimaginable — and are designed for their five million daily users, which is 20 times more than its airplane users, to be able to flow through as efficiently as possible.


ZERO RISK IS IMPOSSIBLE

Three days after Friday's attempted attack, when security measures were meant to have been significantly reinforced in Belgium and France, the Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure/Les Sports sent one of its reporters, equipped with a false assault rifle sticking out of his backpack, on a train ride from Brussels to the French city of Lille. Titled "Bringing weapons onto a high-speed train? A walk in the park!" the article explains how the man, also wearing a hoodie, a baseball cap and sunglasses, encountered no control or questions whatsoever — even as he left his bag unattended on his train seat or went up to talk with patrolling soldiers. Christophe Rouget, the spokesperson of the SCSI, one of France's main police unions, told the French weekly L'Obs: "There's no zero risk. The risk exists aboard trains, on the rails, in stations, and we have to learn to live with this threat." François Heisbourg, a former defense official, told The Washington Post that "making a security system work for trains is almost as difficult as ensuring security on roads," comparing such a move to screening every car on the street for bombs.



PASSENGER LISTS

The vulnerability of open societies, with Europe's open borders, means strengthening the international cooperation of intelligence services even further. Ayob El Khazzani, Friday's attacker, had been signaled to the French by Spanish authorities due to ties with extremist Islam in Spain. But in France for instance, whereabout 3,500 people are currently considered potential jihadi terrorist threats, according to Le Figaro, authorities cannot arrest these suspects on the sole base of what they might do. One of the propositions to reinforce intelligence cooperation, already put forward by the French Interior Minister Bernard Cazeneuve after the Charlie Hebdo attacks last January, is the expansion of the use of the Passenger Name Record "PNR," the passenger flight data already exploited by police and intelligence units, to railway and maritime companies as well as to other countries, L'Obs reports.


SPANISH EXPERIENCE

In Europe, Spain, deeply marked by the deadly 2004 Madrid train bombings, is the only country to systematically check the luggage of every passenger on long-distance trains, as El Mundo reports. Could major stations in every country start implementing the same rules? The only other similar case in Europe is the Eurostar, where passengers are required to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure for identity and baggage checks. But this is because the United Kingdom is not part of the Schengen area, and recreating border controls between countries such as France, Germany, Belgium, Spain or Italy, simply seems out of the question. According to Reuters, shortly after the Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel called on his neighbors for tighter security on cross-border trains, the European Commission reminded European authorities that the Schengen Treaty on freedom of movement was "non-negotiable."


BEYOND EUROPE

Other countries outside Europe have also recently been focusing on train security issues. In the United States, Friday's attack brought the light onto its own vulnerability, as The New York Times reported.

  • U.S. train stations are patrolled by armed Amtrak police officers and their bomb-sniffing dogs. Passengers can be searched at random and those who refuse to comply will not be able to board trains.
  • In Japan, an incident in which a man doused himself with gasoline and set himself on fire, killing himself and another passenger aboard a running Tokaido Shinkansen bullet train on June 30, prompted authorities to step up its train security measures, according to The Japan Times. The Japanese transport ministry decided to step up identity and baggage checks, train monitoring and fire-fighting equipment.
  • Although unrelated to Friday's attack in France, India also decided to tighten its rail security measures this week, The Indian Express reports. In order to improve passenger safety and security, especially for women, in a country that was shaken by several horrific transport-related gang rape cases, Indian Railways has decided to install surveillance cameras aboard some 20,000 coaches. Around 11,000 trains run daily in India, so the move may also look like a small step towards complete train security. But it is part of a new debate on an old means of transport that is bound to cross borders.

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