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September 05, 2011

9/11 and the Trains

A young reporter called me last week in a panic.  He was writing a big story on the tenth anniversary of 9/11 and had just realized that our trains are vulnerable to terrorist attacks.  Really?
I asked him where he’s been for the last nine years as I, and many others, have written over and over again about this issue.  “Well, don’t you think the tenth anniversary makes the trains an even more attractive target?” he asked breathlessly. “No,” I said.  “Timing’s not the issue.”
After 9/11 when airports were well secured, somebody noticed that we’d by then spent $11 billion improving aviation security, or $9.16 per passenger.  In the same time we’d only spent $115 million on mass transit, or $0.006 per passenger.  Why?  Because, as someone at Homeland Security so aptly put it, “Trains don’t fly into skyscrapers.”
Is it safe to ride Metro-North?  I don’t know.  But the constant public service announcements about “do-it-yourself security” (“If you see something, say something”) are hardly reassuring.
I seldom see cops on the trains.  When I do, it seems to be more for PR value than protection.  I have never seen a random bag check. I do see cameras at key stations, but wonder if anyone’s actively watching them. Or are the videotapes just for after-action analysis?
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 130,000 daily passengers to control.  But consider some of the possibilities:  
= ID checks before boarding?  For what purpose? Of what deterrence value?  And imagine the lines.  
= Airport style secure zones and screenings?  Can you imagine thousands of riders arriving 60 – 90 minutes before departure to queue 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.  Governor Malloy just laid off 26 CT State Troopers.  The National Guard is busy in Afghanistan and cleaning up after Hurricane Irene.  That doesn’t leave much in the way of personnel to increase visible security.
The MTA PD will tell you there are all kinds of security measures you can’t see.  Maybe so.  Or maybe those secret efforts don’t exist.  I really don’t know.
Do I take the train into New York City?  Sure.  Do I feel safe?  Yes, when I don’t think too much about it.
But you won’t see me lingering in high traffic, attractive target areas for a suicide bomber.  And you won’t see me hesitate in calling 911 if I do see something suspicious.  Am I paranoid or just precautious?
One e-mailer this week criticized me for pointing out how vulnerable our trains really are.  He said I was just encouraging bad guys to attack us.  Believe me; I have given this some thought.
I think any Boy Scout, let alone a determined terrorist, would need just hours of observation to see how soft a target we are.  I’m not telling the bad guys anything they don’t already know and haven’t seen in past attack targets like Madrid and London.
But I am trying to alert you, dear reader, and our lawmakers while there’s still a chance to do something.  Let this tenth anniversary of that horrible day, September 11th, remind us all that terrorism can happen anywhere, anytime.  Yes, even on a train.

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