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 â€" 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:


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 â€" when today’s terrorism was unimaginable â€" 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.


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 â€" 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.


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, where about 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.


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.”


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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Preparing a COVID-19 vaccine booster in Huzhou, China.

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

👋 Ciao!*

Welcome to Wednesday, where Brazil's senate backs "crimes against humanity" charges against Jair Bolsonaro, the UN has a grim new climate report and Dune gets a sequel. Meanwhile, German daily Die Welt explores "Xi Jinping Thought," which is now being made part of Chinese schools' curriculum.



• Senators back Bolsonaro criminal charges: A Brazilian Senate panel has backed a report that supports charging President Jair Bolsonaro with crimes against humanity, for his alleged responsibility in the country's 600,000-plus COVID-19 deaths.

• Gas crisis in Moldova following Russian retaliation: Moldova, one of Europe's poorest countries, has for the first time challenged Russia's Gazprom following a price increase and failed contract negotiations, purchasing instead from Poland. In response, Russia has threatened to halt sales to the Eastern European country, which has previously acquired all of its gas from Gazprom.

• New UN climate report finds planned emission cuts fall short: The Emissions Gap Report 2021 concludes that country pledges to reduce greenhouse gas emissions aren't large enough to keep the global temperature rise below 1.5 °C degrees this century. The UN Environment Program predicts a 2.7 °C increase, with significant environmental impacts, but there is still hope that longer term net-zero goals will curtail some temperature rise.

• COVID update: As part of its long-awaited reopening, Australia will officially allow its citizens to travel abroad without a government waiver for the first time in more than 18 months. Bulgaria, meanwhile, hits record daily high COVID-19 cases as the Eastern European's hotel and restaurant association is planning protests over the implementation of the vaccination "green pass." In the U.S., a panel of government medical advisors backed the use of Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine for five to 11-year-olds.

• U.S. appeals decision to block Julian Assange extradition: The United States said it was "extremely disappointed" in a UK judge's ruling that Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, would be a suicide risk of he traveled across the Atlantic. In the U.S., he faces 18 charges related to the 2010 release of 500,000 secret files related to U.S. military activity.

• Deposed Sudan prime minister released: Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has been released from custody, though remains under heavy guard after Sudan's military coup. Protests against the coup have continued in the capital Khartoum, as Hamdok has called for the release of other detained governmental officials.

Dune Part 2 confirmed: The world will get to see Timothée Chalamet ride a sandworm: The second installment of the sci-fi epic and global box office hit has officially been greenlit, set to hit the screens in 2023.


Front page of the National Post's October 27 front page

Canadian daily National Post reports on the nomination of Steven Guilbeault, a former Greenpeace activist, as the country's new Environment minister. He had been arrested in 2001 for scaling Toronto's CN Tower to unfurl a banner for Greenpeace, which he left in 2008.


Chinese students now required to learn to think like Xi Jinping

"Xi Jinping Thought" ideas on socialism have been spreading across the country since 2017. But now, Beijing is going one step further by making them part of the curriculum, from the elementary level all the way up to university, reports Maximilian Kalkhof in German daily Die Welt.

🇨🇳 It's important to strengthen the "determination to listen to and follow the party." Also, teaching materials should "cultivate patriotic feelings." So say the new guidelines issued by the Chinese Ministry of Education. The goal is to help Chinese students develop more "Marxist beliefs," and for that, the government wants its national curriculum to include "Xi Jinping Thought," the ideas, namely, of China's current leader. Behind this word jam is a plan to consolidate the power of the nation, the party and Xi himself.

📚 Starting in September, the country's 300 million students have had to study the doctrine, from elementary school into university. And in some cities, even that doesn't seem to be enough. Shanghai announced that its students from third to fifth grade would only take final exams in mathematics and Chinese, de facto deleting English as an examination subject. Beijing, in the meantime, announced that it would ban the use of unauthorized foreign textbooks in elementary and middle schools.

⚠️ But how does a country that enchants its youth with socialist ideology and personality cults rise to become a world power? Isn't giving up English as a global language the quickest way into isolation? The educational reform comes at a time when Beijing is brutally disciplining many areas of public life, from tech giants to the entertainment industry. It has made it difficult for Chinese technology companies to go public abroad, and some media have reported that a blanket ban on IPOs in the United States is on the cards in the next few years.

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"I'm a footballer and I'm gay."

— Australian soccer player Josh Cavallo said in a video accompanying a tweet in which he revealed his homosexuality, becoming the first top-flight male professional player in the world to do so. The 21-year-old said he was tired of living "this double life" and hoped his decision to come out would help other "players living in silence."


Why this Sudan coup d'état is different

Three days since the military coup was set in motion in Sudan, the situation on the ground continues to be fluid. Reuters reports this morning that workers at the state petroleum company Sudapet are joining a nationwide civil disobedience movement called by trade unions in response to the generals' overthrow of the government. Doctors have also announced a strike.

Generals in suits At the same time, the military appears firmly in control, with deposed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok allowed to return home today after being held by the coup leaders. How did we get here? That's the question that David E. Kiwuwa, a professor of international relations at the University of Nottingham, takes on in The Conversation:

"Since the revolution that deposed Omar el-Bashir in 2019, the military have fancied themselves as generals in suits. They have continued to wield enough power to almost run a parallel government in tension with the prime minister. This was evident when the military continued to have the say on security and foreign affairs.

Economy as alibi For their part, civilian officials concentrated on rejuvenating the economy and mobilizing international support for the transitional council. This didn't stop the military from accusing the civilian leadership of failing to resuscitate the country's ailing economy.

True, the economy has continued to struggle from high inflation, low industrial output and dwindling foreign direct investment. As in all economies, conditions have been exacerbated by the effects of COVID-19. Sudan's weakened economy is, however, not sufficient reason for the military intervention. Clearly this is merely an excuse."

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471 million euros

Rome's Casino di Villa Boncompagni Ludovisi, better known as Villa Aurora, will be put up for auction in January for 471 million euros ($547 million). The over-the-top price tag is thanks to the villa having the only known ceiling painting by Renaissance master Caravaggio.

✍️ Newsletter by Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin and Bertrand Hauger

Who wants to start the bidding on the Caravaggio villa? Otherwise, let us know what the news looks like from your corner of the world!!

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