New Report Maps Link Between Overseas Transit Attacks and Domestic Risk

Transit networks around the world beefed up security measures in the wake of last month's fatal bombing of a Moscow subway car, but the relevance of circumstances and tactics used in overseas terrorist attacks to U.S. rail and bus security remains unclear, according to a new report partly funded by the U.S. DOT.

0329_US_Subway_Security_full_380.jpgA police officer monitors New York City subway commuters last month, part of stepped-up security after the Moscow attack. (Photo: AP/CSM)
The report was released in March by the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University, which gets funding from the U.S. DOT and the California state legislature. The MTI, named for the Bush-era Transportation Secretary, is in the process of assembling the first database of terrorist attacks specific to U.S. surface transport modes, supplementing existing government statistics with its own research.

The MTI's latest report on its database analyzed more than 1,600 terrorist attacks on or threats to surface transportation -- only 15 of which occurred in North America. Of those, four were directed at public buses, three at bridges, and eight at trains.

Transit's lack of prevalence as a terrorist target in the United States, according to the MTI, is due in part to the more widespread public use of rail and buses in Asia, Latin America, and Europe. From the report:

Most of the attacks take place in countries in which train or bus transportation is either
the primary means of public transportation (e.g., in Israel) or, along with trains, a large
part of it, and in rural areas, the only public transportation.

This is far from the situation in the United States, where aviation is the primary method of long-haul transportation, and with the exception of high-density urban centers such as New York, Boston, and San Francisco, the automobile is the primary method of local transportation. Where train or bus transportation is extremely important, it becomes an obvious terrorist target. Conversely, where it is not so important, it may be a less likely target.

Even so, the MTI noted that transit remains in the sights of terrorist groups seeking "soft targets," buildings or elements of infrastructure that may not be as tightly guarded as government property but would carry a risk of significant casualties. Recent attacks on transit in London, Madrid, and Mumbai "were considered major terrorist successes," the report's authors warned. "Past success makes future attempts more likely."