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July 10, 2005

Terror On The Tracks

The news of the recent terror attacks in London should not really come as a surprise. After the Madrid bombings in March of 2004, it was really only a matter of time before terrorism struck again at such a vulnerable target as mass transit.

Our government has proven itself unable to protect the homeland, so seeing State Troopers and police riding Metro-North trains seems like an act of PR, propping up public opinion, rather than acting as any deterrence.

According to the House Transportation Committee, since 9/11 we’ve spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger. In the same time we’ve only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.

Homeland Security has tried some experiments in improving rail safety… scanning checked baggage in Washington DC and creating a security perimeter around the Hagerstown MD rail station. But their craziest experiment of all happened right here in Connecticut.

In July of 2004, a Shore Line East train was outfitted with an extra car carrying bombing sniffing and metal detecting equipment (on loan from manufacturer GE which is obviously eyeing lucrative contracts). Passengers boarding the train at all stations first had to enter the “security car” and as the train moved along, were screened for explosives. That’s right… they got on the train and then were screened. But isn’t the idea to keep the bombs off of the trains, not find them in transit?

What can realistically be done to improve safety on our trains and subways? In my view… not much. There are hundreds of miles of track, scores of stations and thousands of passengers to control. Consider some of the possibilities:

  • ID checks before boarding? For what purpose… and of what deterrence value?

  • Airport style secure zones and screenings? Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to cue for screenings twice each day? They’d abandon the trains and be back in their cars in a flash.

  • A cop on every train? Be honest: do you really think a determined suicide bomber would stop at his grizzly task if he saw a cop on the train? And with a ten-car Metro-North train carrying more passengers than a 747, what good is a cop at the front of the train if something happens a quarter-mile behind him in the rear car?

  • Bomb-sniffing dogs on every train? Maybe. But we don’t have anywhere near enough trained canines to handle the hundreds of trains each day on Metro-North.

So what’s a commuter to do? In my view… rely on your own instincts. Be watchful of your surroundings, unattended bags and suspicious behavior. If you see something that doesn’t look right… report it.

Last year, after the Madrid bombings, I was on a Metro-North train headed into the city when a passenger came into my car, spoke softly with the conductor, and sat down. Two other passengers followed him, now speaking in more excited tones. They said there was a dark skinned man in the other car sweating profusely, looking at his watch, reading an Arabic newspaper and playing with something in his briefcase. The conductor radioed ahead and our train was stopped in the Bronx. MTA Police in body armor boarded and took the man off the train.

To my eye he looked like any other commuter. Sweating, perhaps because he’d run for the train. Looking at his watch, because he was late for an appointment. Fumbling with something in his briefcase, maybe to find his Blackberry. Reading a foreign newspaper, to catch up on the news in his native tongue. The gentleman looked Indian, not Arabic, but he offered no resistance when he climbed off the train.

Paranoia? Xenophobia? Or have our enemies really won and left us terrorized?
I’m still riding the train and taking the subways. But I’m not expecting the authorities to prevent the inevitable… further terrorist attacks right here in the US.

JIM CAMERON has been a Darien resident for 14 years. He is Vice Chairman of the CT Metro-North / Shore Line East Rail Commuter Council, and a member of the Coastal Corridor TIA and the Darien RTM. You can reach him at or

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