Shoes Off, Laptops Out, All Aboard!

Imagine having to go through this gauntlet every time you get on the subway. Photo: ##https://www.flickr.com/photos/redjar/113959474/in/photostream/##flickr user redjar##
Imagine having to go through this gauntlet every time you get on the train. Photo: redjar/Flickr

Rail travel has many advantages over flying, like the view out the window, or arriving at a downtown location. Perhaps most importantly: You don’t have to get to the train station an hour early to go through security checkpoints like you do in airports. But last month’s attack on a Paris-bound train has amplified calls to beef up rail security.

Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Cory Booker (D-NJ) are urging the Transportation Security Administration to take steps to strengthen security in accordance with a still-unimplemented law from 2007. “While aviation security is a vital focus of the TSA, your agency also has a critical role to play in protecting rail and transit passengers,” the senators admonish. That’s right: They’re not just talking about inter-city rail but urban transit, too.

Blumenthal and Booker are asking the TSA to approve security plans for all railroads that are considered vulnerable targets for a terrorist attack; to train rail and transit employees on handling potential security threats; and provide a framework for conducting name-based security background checks — and immigration status checks — on all frontline employees at public transportation agencies and railroads.

Advocates worry that the security plans will apply post-9/11 air travel measures to rail. “Transit rail carried 6.12 billion trips in 2014 and Amtrak carried more than 31 million passengers, and policymakers must not allow the threat of terrorism bring the U.S. rail system grinding to a halt,” said a statement from the National Association of Railroad Passengers. “If Americans must take off their shoes every time they ride a subway, the U.S. will be weaker for it.”

It goes on:

NARP is calling upon the TSA to recognize the unique characteristics of rail, and recognize that what works for airports will not work for train stations. There are more than 500 Amtrak stations in the U.S., along with thousands of transit stops. Many of these stations are located within the center of downtown areas, serving as centers of commerce and community gathering points. It is simply not feasible to completely seal off access and screen every passenger.

NARP spokesperson Benét Wilson says even the training recommendation could end up slowing passengers down. “There would be a learning curve, similar to what happened at airports in the aftermath of 9/11 as TSA got operations up and running,” she said in an email. “That led to long security lines and delays for passengers in a system that isn’t nearly as large as passenger rail, which includes Amtrak, commuter trains and subways.”

NARP is also concerned about unfunded mandates. Requiring agencies to build up a significant security apparatus while federal appropriations for rail and transit stagnate (at best) would divert resources that could be spent on better service.

  • ocschwar

    Oh, hell no.

  • ocschwar

    You cannot hijack a train and fly it into a building. A train is just yet another container that gets crowded with people. Same as any movie theater, restaurant, shopping mall, or stadium. And it needs no more security than any other such place.

  • Joe R.

    Lets be realistic. The only reason for this idea is to make rail travel less efficient in order to stop the bleeding of mode share from planes to trains. It serves no valid security purpose. Curious how we’re ready to police rail like this but we’re ignoring the biggest security threat out there, namely the hordes of private cars entering our cities each day. If this stupid idea sees the light of day, then Ill be all for thoroughly searching each and every motor vehicle entering NYC at city limits. If this means it takes suburban car commuters 4 hours to get to work so be it. What’s good for goose is good for the gander.

  • Joe R.

    Exactly. A plane is essentially a guided flying bomb. As such, in my opinion they shouldn’t even be allowed within 25 miles of major urban centers. The security measures needed for planes make no sense when applied to nearly anything else.

  • Simon Phearson

    Agreed. I don’t know why we can’t make that argument quite convincingly – car bombs are endemic to terrorist conflicts across the globe. If rail passengers need to be screened, then by all means we should start talking not about congestion pricing, but pre-clearance procedures, for anyone wanting to drive into the CBD.

  • I thought Cory Booker was a forward-thinking guy. Guess I was wrong!

  • com63

    This country can deal with tens of thousands of people dying in transportation incident (eg mostly in car collisions) every year, but the though of a few people dying in terrorism, most likely from a gun, is inconceivable and needs to be dealt with.

  • One of the reasons I avoid riding Amtrak is because I don’t fully understand how it works. (And what I do understand I find disagreeable.) This is my most recent experience on Amtrak.

    Understanding and convenience is a major difference between riding intercity trains in the United States and intercity trains in Europe.

    In Europe, you arrive to the station mere minutes before your desired train’s departure time (you can buy “open” tickets that are valid for any train on a certain route) and hop on. There’s no need to tell any staff that “Hi, my name is Steven and I have come here to board your train” like you do at airports and bigger Amtrak stations.

  • Joe R.

    The entire “reservation” system is most likely an end result of the fact Amtrak needs more trains than it can actually run. Many trains are consistently filled, especially in the northeast. So long as we continue to not invest in passenger rail, despite the obvious pent-up demand, the situation is unlikely to change. We can get around this partially with longer trains, but people prefer more frequent trains instead.

  • To travel on Eurostar trains between London and France and Belgium, there’s airport-style security screening (and it’s necessary to check in half an hour or so before the train departs). It’s a major headache. Nevertheless, when I lived in London, I always preferred the convenience of a city center to city center journey (and the quick journey times once the UK high-speed lines opened) to the dreary trudge out to the airports. I would take the train for journeys as far away as the Netherlands, changing in Brussels, and most of France.

  • I find Amtrak’s online reservation system pretty straightforward. I choose the train I want, taking the price into account, book it, print out the ticket and take it along with me. It’s not like the European train system you suggest but lots of places in Europe are moving away from that as well, I think.

  • rao

    In some subway systems in China you must run your bags through a scanner when going through a turnstile. It doesn’t seem to slow people down much, but it sure feels like security theater.

  • lykorian

    Of course, it matters not that the TSA has yet to apprehend a single suspected terrorist, let alone thwart an actual attack. Just another excuse to grow an expensive and intrusive federal agency that had no business existing in the first place.

  • R.A. Stewart

    True, except God forbid we should actually *do* anything about guns … but that’s another whole issue.

  • R.A. Stewart

    I knew this idiocy was coming, and after the European train incident I figured it would be soon.

    NARP’s letter is here

    http://www.narprail.org/news/releases/narp-asks-for-balance-in-proposed-measures-to-protect-rail-passengers/

    and the Association’s website is http://www.narprail.org/ for anyone who is interested.

    The letter cites Senators Blumenthal Booker as “strong supporters of rail,” but I can well imagine that the anti-Amtrak, anti-transit, anti-urban contingent will see the potential here of killing passenger rail in the guise of protecting it. Many letters to the Senators are in order.

  • Jared Kachelmeyer

    This should be edited to read likely arrive in a downtown. The Main Amshcak in Buffalo is in a suburb, St. Paul, MN wasn’t downtown (I’m not actually sure where it was), the train to San Francisco ended in a nearby city and you had to board a bus…

  • Flakker

    St. Paul is downtown now, actually. Its’ moving into the old station is the rare Amtrak success story.

  • Denver too is now in its new old station.

  • Speaking of longer trains, my Amtrak to Denver at some stations on the way required two stops, one for the front of the train and one for the back.

  • Why carry a bomb on board when you can wait beside the track in a farm field. This is nuts.

  • dr2chase

    So, will my honest opinion of this post, or be filtered? What the fuck are these idiots thinking?

  • Andrew

    Amtrak’s move out of the old Denver station was only temporary, to accommodate the station’s reconstruction. The plan had always been to move back afterwards.

  • david vartanoff

    Double stopping has been SOP for decades wherever the platform s are shortert han the train. Givenhow stingy Congress is, it is more efficient for Amtrak to stop twice thanspend the money to build/maintain longer platforms (even if the “host” RR would allow same).

  • david vartanoff

    Not sure what mystifies you. I will agree that it was nicer when you just bought an open ticket or used made up names (I sometimes traveled as L D Bronstein) That said, I find booking/buying tix online easy enough. I print mine out, but I would suspect you have a smartphone which is equally easy for presenting your ticket. I will say that among rail enthusiasts, there is talk of an Amtrak employee at Chicago Union Station who is on some sort of power trip. Given the horrible layout of that rat’s maze (a small replica of basementvania station in NYC), finding one’s way to the trains is a pain. Perhaps she should go to work for John Mica.

  • bolwerk

    Amtrak seems to have a fraction of the seating as European trains. New trainsets really should consider that.

  • bolwerk

    That’s because the UK thinks it’s too white for the Schengen area.

  • bolwerk

    I bet they know exactly what they’re doing. We’re their little playthings. They want rail to not work.

  • Matthias

    Interesting, I’ve never encountered this on the East Coast although there are plenty of short platforms where only a single car will platform. These seem to be very low-ridership stations (are the ones you mention busy?) but it would be more efficient to seat riders wanting those stations in designated cars to eliminate the need for either double-stopping or changing cars to exit.

  • Matthias

    I’m always writing my officials about this. It’s impossible to get a ticket less than weeks in advance without paying through the nose. We need vastly more capacity on the NEC.

  • david vartanoff

    Filtering of riders to a “shorts” car is standard in coaches. Sleeping car space is assigned as purchased based on what is available, thus the riders are not located by stop. Further, in the cases of trains which split/merge at some intermediate point–Lake Shore Ltd to NYC/Boston–if you boarded the Boston section you will be at the front of the train regardless of your destination.

  • Cameron Puetz

    Typically on the double stops it’s one stop for coach and one stop for sleepers.

  • djx

    “Exactly. A plane is essentially a guided flying bomb. As such, in my opinion they shouldn’t even be allowed within 25 miles of major urban centers.”

    How many people are killed each year by these guided flying bombs?

    I’m not disagreeing that trains should not have the same sort of “security” planes have, but get some perspective. There’s extremely low danger from plane crashes in general. And I’m not sure how your ban would make things safer from hijackings.

  • Joe R.

    There are lots of other negative effects of planes flying near urban areas like noise or pollution, so a ban would serve a dual purpose.

    It’s true using planes as flying bombs is exceedingly rare. However, the potential consequences are so huge that in my opinion a ban like I mentioned might be warranted. Remember 9/11 caused some tens of billions in direct damages, an economic hit of perhaps $1 trillion, and another longer term hit of a few trillion when the US got involved in wars it wouldn’t have otherwise gotten involved in. Obviously such a ban won’t prevent hijackings but it’s not meant to. The ban would just give the Air Force more time to intercept and shoot down a hijacked plane before it could be flown into a building. Or NYC could install missile batteries to do the same for any plane flying closer than 25 miles.

  • calwatch

    The NEC used to have unreserved trains (the Clockers were unreserved) and had issues with capacity so they made all NEC trains reserved, which is annoying but not a deal breaker. On routes with fewer riders, like the California short distance trains, they are unreserved and you get standing loads leaving Los Angeles on some Friday afternoons.

  • Azunyan

    Yes, because we all know TSA has captured terrorists all the while molesting little children and 90 year old grandmas. (rolls eyes)

  • Joe R.

    We need another set of Hudson River tunnels for starters. Really, the entire line should be 4-tracked from Penn Station to Newark because that’s where the real bottleneck is. 6 tracks might not even be a horrible idea. And then have at least 4 tracks in the other places on the NEC where there are now two or three. If Amtrak is filling up trains, despite the very high fares per mile compared to just about any other rail service, this tells me it could use lots more capacity. My guess is they could fill up 5 times as many seats, especially if they dropped to fares to something in line with what a similar train in Europe might charge.

  • dkx

    What a scary mix of crazy. Missile barriers and shooting down planes in the wrong airspace. It would be very interested to be inside the decision-making to shoot down what might be a hijacked airliner (but could be one off course). Great.

    Missile barriers? Really?

  • Joe R.

    This was seriously talked about after 9/11. In fact, I think the original plans were for the WTC replacement to have a missile battery to prevent a future attack.

    Obviously a saner solution would have been for the US to get off oil after 9/11, then get out of the Middle East so the crazies there would have less reason to want to fly planes into buildings. But we didn’t do that because Joe Sixpack has to have cheap gas for his SUV. US foreign and energy policy is really no less crazy than the idea of missile batteries.

    BTW, it’s not hard to tell the difference between a hijacked plane and one which is off course, especially if you have restricted airspace around cities. Any pilot flying will know enough to stay out of the restricted airspace. Basically, they’ll know if they’re close enough to see the city then they shouldn’t be there. They’ll also generally answer air traffic control. With a bunch of failsafe protocols in place you could probably minimize the chance of accidentally shooting down an airliner which isn’t hijacked to nearly zero. I don’t take the idea of shooting down a civilian airliner lightly, but if it’s a choice of having it destroy a major building or not, I’ll shoot it down each and every time. My understanding is fighter jets were in fact scrambled to intercept the wayward airliners on 9/11. Had they reached them in time, they had clear orders to shoot them down if the pilots didn’t respond to requests to land.

  • Kenny Easwaran

    That is not what Booker and Blumenthal are thinking. Those are probably two of the Senators with the largest number of rail-riding constituents, particularly among their richest constituents. They really are just that misguided though.

  • Dexter Wong

    Talk like this just plays into the plans of those who say that you are safe only in your car, not in a plane, not in a train and not in a bus. Such talk is myopic beyond belief.

  • bolwerk

    There is the question as to whether they are thinking. There are good things to say about Booker, but I’m not sure transit advocacy is on the list. You’d expect this region’s (NYC metro area’s) elected officials to understand the importance of rail, but mostly they don’t.

  • Alex Brideau III

    I’d love to think the idea is crazy, but like Joe R. writes, it was seriously considered in the aftermath of the Sep 11 attacks (and perhaps still is, in certain circles).

  • davistrain

    One of the advantages of Amtrak is the space in passengers cars (especially when compared with the “sardine can” seating in airline economy class). I think it’s safe to say that Americans (other than maybe New Yorkers) have little tolerance for crowding..

  • bolwerk

    Funny comment. I believe it’s actually backed by research. Americans are unusually uncomfortable when someone gets within a foot of their personal space, while in many other western countries it’s seen as pretty normal to lean very close to someone to speak to them.

    That said, you can probably increase seating density significantly on Amtrak and still be better than airlines. New York’s subway is standing room only, but that is only for relatively short trips. HSR does call for a seat.

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