Providing Security for High-Speed Rail

One often hears the expression that, “There is an elephant in the room that no one is talking about” – i.e., a topic or issue so obvious that it cries out to be addressed but is often ignored for one reason or another. The “elephant in the room” in most if not all current discussions about high-speed rail (HSR) projects in the United States is “security.”

Until now, in fact, most discussions about HSR projects have centered on such political and/or financial/economic questions as the following: What is or should be the role of the U.S. government in facilitating the building of the first HSR system in the United States? What is or should be the role of the private sector? What will be the “hand-off costs” to U.S. taxpayers to maintain the HSR system? What will be the real economic benefit to travelers?

Similar discussion points about affordability, spending priorities, and the long-range impact on modernizing the national transportation system infrastructure also have been raised. Regrettably, most of these discussions seem to be increasingly politicized as debates continue to focus primarily on the growing U.S. deficit, the spending priorities at all levels of government, calls for additional tax revenues and/or spending cuts, and – last but not least – the need to modernize the overall U.S. transportation system.

The Question Not Asked: What About Security?

It is of critical importance that security be included in the earliest stages of HSR planning and design. Ignoring security as an essential ingredient in mission planning could lead to fatal flaws in future HSR prospects throughout the United States. Nonetheless, current ongoing HSR discussions – in California, Texas, and Illinois – seem to focus primarily, and predictably, on such questions as the following: Who benefits? Who pays? Is this a budget necessity? Do taxes go up? Who builds the system? Is it a spending boondoggle? Is it affordable? And where does it fit in the overall list of spending priorities? Considering the fact that there are significant disagreements in all three of those states on what are or should be the answers to these and other questions, it is not surprising that security discussions have been put on the back burner.

As was true in the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the Twin Towers and on the Pentagon – well-known iconic symbols – a new HSR system established anywhere in the country would, if only for propaganda reasons, certainly become another prime target for terrorists. For one thing, a successful attack on such an important transportation icon would send a worldwide message about the possible vulnerability of the nation as a whole.

U.S. decision makers, planners, engineers, and project architects should never overlook the fact that a unique new U.S. transportation system of the type contemplated would almost certainly be high on the targeting screen of would-be terrorists. And it would be different in many respects from many other potential targets, including the fact that the primary purpose in building it would be to provide much faster transportation.

With time being of the essence, delays of any kind would not only be counterproductive and self-defeating, but also would have to be avoided whenever possible; after all, most HSR passengers would be in a hurry and scheduling would be tight. For both of those reasons, there probably would be minimal time-delaying security procedures and/or passenger screenings aimed at spotting persons who might be in the early stages of  “casing” a target by looking for various vulnerabilities and design weaknesses.

Even so, with boarding protocols at a minimum, the HSR train itself could be the terrorists’ highest value target; one that, if attacked while moving at high speed, would assure a great number of deaths, graphic publicity, and a psychological shockwave throughout the nation and around the world. Such a disaster could have a tsunami-scale ripple effect – opening a floodgate of liability claims, as well as congressional inquiries on security lapses, and planning failures. In short, just one deadly setback might conceivably bring the entire system to a screeching halt.

Discussion Points & System Vulnerabilities

Clearly, planning and maintaining security for any HSR project involves significant risks with no guarantee of success. Nonetheless, the U.S. security business, considered as a whole, is preparing and planning to reduce those risks, protect the public, detect and deter criminal activity, and avoid corporate catastrophe.

To actually do all that, however, the security business must be in on the ground floor of discussions about mission design, engineering, and corporate planning. Among the more obvious security issues that could be discussed in these first stages of planning and design are the following:

  • The installation and use of camera systems both in train stations and on the trains themselves;
  • The protection of “designated” right of ways;
  • The installation and use of intrusion-detection alarm systems, specifically including systems monitoring the detection of various chemicals;
  • The plans and procedures needed to train and use bomb-sniffing dogs;
  • The emergency planning required to ensure a quick and effective response from first responders;
  • The law enforcement protocols required: (a) to detect and deter terrorist activities; and (b) to legally authorize requests for personalentification and/or the inspection of backpacks, attaché cases, and other carry-on packages; and
  • The assignment of management responsibility for such high-level tasks as the development and use of emergency-alert procedures, evacuation planning, crisis management, and public affairs strategy.

Learning From Others to Create a Global Showcase

Wherever and whenever the first U.S. HSR system is established, it will be a “showcase” project that would be viewed by at least some terrorist groups as another opportunity to send a message to U.S. citizens, government, and allies throughout the world. Fortunately, there is much more that still can be done during the preliminary discussions and decision-making processes to fit security into the design and development stages of HSR planning.

A number of U.S. allies – Japan, Taiwan, Spain, Germany, Italy, South Korea, China, and the United Kingdom, for example – are already running successful HSR systems, and have been doing so for years. Many lessons can be learned by inviting representatives from those nations to attend a summit-level U.S. HSR security conference and to share, behind closed doors, the security methods and systems that have worked successfully in the past. There is much that the United States would gain by comparing notes and hosting such a high-level dialogue.

Similar efforts at previous passenger rail international conferences have proved to be highly valuable. Learning what is working in other systems would help the United States to adapt and adopt accordingly, thus saving money, improving defenses, protecting U.S. citizens (and visitors from other nations), and anchoring the current project designs.

At the end of these and other efforts, HSR security planning may still have the outward appearance of a relatively “small footprint,” but behind the scenes will actually represent a highly sophisticated and effective strategic plan. Whatever else happens, security must ultimately be a strong and sturdy “pillar” in the design foundation for any HSR project. In short, it is not too early to start talking about security. In fact, given the size of this rather large and sometimes clumsy elephant in an already crowded room, it is becoming increasingly difficult, and now probably impossible, to ignore it.

William Rooney

William Rooney retired from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) after a 35-year career as a senior executive and field operations officer, which included assignment to various key posts in the CIA’s Directorate of Operations. Most recently, he served as the chief of the Military and Special Programs Division, and as chief of the Latin American Division. He also received a number of awards, including a Distinguished Career Medal and the Donovan Award. After retiring from the CIA, he worked for a number of years at Amtrak, where his last position was Vice President for Security. He is the author of a fictional novel, entitled “Repeat: Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.”



No tags to display


Translate »