The Year of the Railway Station

by Steven Polunsky

The year 2017 should be a great year for mobility and infrastructure in the United States. All signs are pointing to a robust economy, and policymakers are looking favorably on transportation projects – road, rail, air, public, private, and in between. In particular, the upcoming year will see a number of passenger rail projects moving forward.

Steven Polunsky headshotSignificant and highly visible high-speed intercity passenger train projects are in the planning stages in Florida, California, Texas, and states in the Northeast. There is even a proposed magnetic levitation train in the Northeast Corridor. These projects are not going to magically appear in a protective bubble, however. Threats are real and documented, and 2017 may be the year when international terrorism retools for U.S. passenger rail.

Warnings With Cyber & Physical Attacks

Vulnerabilities abound within the passenger rail sphere. Cybersecurity events such as the November 2016 hacking of the San Francisco Municipal Light Rail System that forced Muni to suspend charging for rides, and transitional periods like the implementation by commuter railroads of positive train control suggest areas for attention by security interests, as do systems increasingly dependent on electric grids and electronic backends like passenger ticketing. Trains in transit have been platforms for onboard terrorist efforts like the August 2015 foiled armed attack on the French TGV as well as attempts to attack the right of way and blow up the rails (TGV in 1995), some successful (Muniguda, Munikhol, and other incidents in India in 2015).

Perhaps the best case to be made for 2017 is for a focus security efforts at stations, where there will be large masses of people. For example, the Texas Central project calls for eight-car trains carrying 200 people with rush-hour departures every 30 minutes. Terrorists could exploit such station vulnerabilities – for example, a coordinated knife attack inside the Kunming station (China) in 2014 killed 29 civilians and injured more than 140. Twenty people died in the bomb attack on the Maelbeek Metro station in central Brussels in March 2016. A 2011 Inspector General’s report criticized how Amtrak and the Department of Homeland Security were spending security money, concluding, “The traveling public remains at risk for a potential terrorist attack at Amtrak’s high-risk stations.”

High-speed train in station

Decisions & Innovative Thinking Going Forward

Yet, there is little indication that high-speed train stations – “Palaces of Transport,” according to the U.S. High Speed Rail Association, and “iconic structures” per the Texas Central Railroad – are benefitting from innovative thinking when it comes to security. California High-Speed Rail’s Request for Qualifications for the High‐Speed Rail Systemwide Vision Plan for Stations of 2015 talks about world-class sustainable public places, but does not mention safety or security. Texas Central held a design competition in 2016 among university architecture, engineering, and transportation programs, with judging based on programming, urban connectivity, use of local materials, environmental sustainability, and customer focus. Security was nowhere in the mix.

There is a continuing debate about the relative merits of airline-style security measures (landside/airside separation, personal and baggage screening, metal detectors, and radiation devices) as opposed to current practices for surface transportation like rail and bus. Even so, there are generally accepted approaches, some as an outgrowth of incidents like the Tokyo (Japan) sarin gas attack of 1995 – adding surveillance cameras, revising training and response protocols, removing trash cans where bombs can be hidden, controlling access to secured areas, providing two-way communication through public address systems and call boxes, intrusion detectors, and so forth. Advocates for both sides argue the relative merits of multilayer security, level of separation from vehicle side and groundside, and level of identification with boarding passes, as well as whether security queues and baggage checks are even realistic for train operations.

It is time to wrap up these conversations and move forward with innovation in station design. Hopefully, 2017 will be remembered as the year that new, secure stations were planned from the ground up.

Steven Polunsky (Twitter: @StevenPolunsky) is a research scientist with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute’s Policy Research Center. He previously directed legislative committees overseeing transportation, homeland security, and regulatory policy where he led an award-winning technology initiative that saved thousands of taxpayer dollars. Prior service includes director of research and planning for the Texas High-Speed Rail Authority and legislative policy analyst for the Texas Department of Transportation. He has an MPA from the LBJ School of Public Affairs as a Robert Strauss Fellow and an MA in Security Studies with Distinction from the Naval Postgraduate School.