Terrorism threat: Will Canada’s railway systems ever be completely secure?

Canadian police and intelligence agencies arrest 2 men in an alleged 'terror plot' targeting Via Rail

The foiling of an alleged plot to attack a Toronto-New York passenger train has brought the predictable hand-wringing over the security of the railway system.

The National Post reports VIA Rail is reviewing its procedures as the public discovers that aircraft aren't the only favoured target of terrorists. In fact, the paper points out, surface transportation — buses, subways, commuter trains and commercial rail — have been hit much more often. They're more widespread and much more difficult to protect.

The California-based Mineta Transportation Institute database on terrorist attacks notes that there have been almost 2,000 such attacks worldwide since 9/11, killing some 4,000 people, the Post said. That compares with 157 attacks on airliners and airports, the institute said in its 2011-2012 annual report on security.

We remember the big ones, such as the 2005 bombing of the London Underground and bus system that killed 56 people, including the four suicide bombers, and the 2004 Madrid train bombings that claimed 191 lives. Even before 9/11, the 1995 attack on a Tokyo subway by the Aum Shinrikyo cult using sarin gas, which killed 13, demonstrated the vulnerability of public mass transit.

Terrorists "remain obsessed" with attacking airliners, the Mineta Transportation Institute says in its most recent annual report, but "public surface transportation is a more accessible killing field, and actively targeted by terrorists."

[ Related: Suspect in train terror plot makes second court appearance ]

Airline/airport attacks since 9/11 have claimed an average of two lives, with some resulting in no casualties. By contrast, attacks on buses and trains have averaged 3.3 deaths, the report said.

"In discussing the quantity of people killed, there were also 11 attacks in which 50 or more people were killed, and in 3 of these attacks, the death toll climbed to just below 200. If one were to translate these 11 attacks into transport category hull losses, it would translate into seven airliners lost since 9/11 – a startling finding."

The Post noted that worldwide, there are 30 attacks on trains each month.

“The fact is that rail transportation and deep public surface transportation is increasingly a favourite target of terrorism,” Brian Michael Jenkins, director of the institute’s national safety and security centre, told the Post. “If we look at the statistics, surface transportation is the terrorist killing fields.”

So if there's cause to be concerned, what is VIA Rail doing?

Vigilance has been increased at stations, officials of the rail carrier told the Post. It won't say how. VIA regularly reviews its security and safety procedures and its board will take another look in the wake of this week's arrests of two alleged jihadist plotters.

“We take all of these matters very seriously,” board chairman Paul Smith told the Post. “It’s not just running the trains, it’s running them safely.”

VIA spokesman Jacques C. Gagnon told The Canadian Press earlier this week it focuses continuously on safety but can't go into specifics.

“To disclose any actions and initiatives that we do would defeat the purpose of ensuring security,” he said, adding just because VIA's security measures weren’t visible, it didn’t mean they weren’t going ahead.

By contrast, Amtrak, VIA's much larger U.S. counterpart, creates a very visible security presence in its operations, including the use of its own armed police, K9 units on station platforms, random baggage screening, compulsory identification for all ticket purchases and onboard security checks. Amtrak also encourages all its employees to be alert for suspicious activity.

The European railway system, post-Madrid, is striving towards a uniform set of security standards for its even more sprawling infrastructure.

Train stations have armed police on platforms but the key, according to an article in Pacific Standard, is eyeballs. However, even in countries where residents accept a higher level of state surveillance, there are limits. German politicians, for instance, balked at installing security cameras in railway station toilets.

[ Related: Ontario wants to look at increased train security following terror plot arrests ]

"The difference between America and Europe, at the moment, is that security theatre carries no political reward in Europe: No mainstream politician wants to inconvenience a lot of voters for security that will never be airtight," the Pacific Standard piece said.

"Europeans have lived with bustling, open-plan train stations for centuries; they know the odds. In America, though, good rail travel stands to become something new and unknown — all over again! — and if U.S. politicians start crowing for airline-style security theatre, the trains’ usefulness will vanish."

In a paper last April analyzing 15 foiled terror plots against public surface transportation, researchers at the Mineta Transportation Institute concluded intelligence — such as the Mounties' investigation of the alleged Canadian plot — is critical to thwarting attacks.

"... [T]he role of physical security seems to have been, at best, a complicating factor in terrorist planning rather than a preventive factor," the study concluded. "The fact remains that public surface transportation systems are necessarily open and therefore unavoidably vulnerable targets.

"Further analysis is needed to determine what physical measures actually work and how they do."