Trains and Terrorism

Its early afternoon on a bright, sunny Tuesday in spring at the Halifax train station. The boarding call for The Ocean, VIA Rail’s luxurious overnight passenger train to Montreal, has just been made over the station’s public address system. As the hundred or so passengers walk outside to the boarding platform, they don’t think about the fact the only documentation they need to board the train is the ticket in their hand.

The vulnerability of trains to a terrorist attack became apparent in March 2004 when terrorists claiming to be linked to Al Qaeda blew up four commuter trains in Madrid during rush hour, killing 191 people and wounding nearly 2,000 others. The very real possibility of the threat was reinforced a year later when home-grown terrorists in Britain attacked the London subway system, killing 52 people including the bombers and injuring 700 others.

In the days immediately following the London Subway Bombing in 2005, a CBC reporter was able to sneak on to a VIA train departing Toronto for Windsor. He was able to break into the baggage car without being stopped by any members of the train’s crew.

Malcolm Andrews, VIA Rail’s senior manager for corporate communications, says that despite the apparent lack of security, VIA Rail has taken many steps towards making its trains safer and more secure. Andrews says that VIA Rail’s efforts go back to the attacks on the World Trade Centre and the Pentagon in September, 2001. Since that time, VIA Rail has worked to remind all its employees to be watchful for anything that might seem out of the ordinary.

These days, passengers can’t even carry bottled water on to an airplane for fear that it could be liquid explosives in disguise. In the United States, Amtrak is imposing strict new security measures on its passengers. But a Kings journalism investigation suggests that VIA Rail does little to confirm the identity of the passengers boarding its trains. Despite an agreement with the government to verify the identity of all ticket-holders, a print-out from the Internet was sufficient to pick up a round trip ticket to Truro and back aboard The Ocean.

Airport security has been tightened significantly since 2001, with passengers being subjected to much more rigorous security procedures including multiple identification checks, more intensive inspections of hand luggage, greater use of metal detectors and tighter restrictions on what is permitted in carry-on luggage.

VIA Rail transports four million passengers a year on 480 trains on a 14, 000 kilometre network spread across eight provinces.

“Canada’s rail network is a vast, open interconnected web,” said Transport Canada spokesperson Maryse Durette, “with more than 50 freight and passenger railway lines operating an average of 775 trains per day.” More than two-thirds of the all the surface freight in Canada is moved by rail.

Documentation obtained from CSIS’s website indicates that over the past five years CSIS has issued numerous warnings indicating that Canada is at risk of being attacked by terrorists.

John Thompson, the director of the Mackenzie Institute, a Toronto-based security think tank said he was not surprised by VIA Rail’s lack of effective security measures. He said that it’s common for large corporations such as VIA Rail to introduce a new policy, which then is not enforced at the grassroots level. He believes the likelihood of Canada being attacked by terrorists is low, but does not discount the possibility. He credits some of the reduction in risk to the dramatic reorganization of the Canadian intelligence community that has occurred over the last seven years. However, he acknowledges that some groups such as Al Qaeda may wish to target Canada for its active role in Afghanistan.

Thompson believes that trains may be both a blessing and a curse for terrorists. On the one hand they can be easily isolated and are largely self-sufficient, but on the other hand, Thompson readily admits that trains are extremely vulnerable to sabotage and that station security is minimal.

“Preventing an incident is extremely difficult,” he said.

Dr. Denis Stairs, a retired political science professor from Dalhousie University who has written extensively on Canadian security and foreign policy, disagrees with Transport Canada. He believes that Canada is at a significant risk of being attacked by terrorists. He places emphasis on Canada’s active role in fighting Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan, but also points out that there are other factors that could be seen as a cause for a terrorist attack against Canada.

Passengers with sleeping car accommodations are required to check their extra luggage when checking in at the ticket counter, for stowage in the baggage car. Smaller items such as backpacks can be taken directly on to the train without being searched. At no point during the boarding process are passengers required to step through a metal detector or any form of full body scanner. The station’s boarding platforms are separated from the rest of the world only by a chain link fence topped with barbed wire.

The security in Truro was equally poor, if not more so. The Truro train station consists of one room in a strip mall. There were only two station attendants and the station platform was totally open to the public, thanks to a covered pedestrian walkway a few hundred feet away from the train station. The station itself had no cameras, either inside or on the platform.

A station attendant in Truro, who has not been identified to protect her job, said that VIA Rail does not search passengers’ baggage for contraband materials. She said she took security training in the form of an online course. She believes the security training that VIA Rail gives its employees is effective, however, as four men were recently apprehended in Truro after trying to buy train tickets in Halifax with French francs.

“The little old man in the corner could be anything,” she said. “You just don’t know.”

This is not the first time VIA Rail has had a security breach. In the days immediately following the London Subway Bombing in 2005, a CBC reporter was able to sneak on to a VIA train departing Toronto for Windsor. He was able to break into the baggage car without being stopped by any members of the train’s crew.

Several VIA Rail employees in Halifax declined to comment when interviewed.

The situation in the United States is different, however. Amtrak, VIA Rail’s American counterpart, has recently implemented new security procedures designed to cut down the risk of a terrorist incident occurring onboard one of its trains. Amtrak spokesperson Tracy Connell said there was no specific threat and that these security plans have been in the planning stages for some time.

Connell also said that Amtrak has made its decision in the wake of the train bombings that have occurred in recent years. She added that Amtrak’s security measures, which include random checks of passengers and their luggage as well as searching the train with bomb sniffing dogs and behind the scenes security that Connell refused to comment on. Connell also said the new security measures will be implemented first in the northeast with a focus on the New York-Boston-Washington Corridor. If the new security measures are successful there, they will be implemented across the rest of Amtrak’s system with Amtrak security teams making random security sweeps.

“We believe the new security measures have been very effective so far,” said Connell.

“There has never been a threat since 2001,” says Andrews. Regardless of that fact, VIA Rail has consulted with outside security experts and drawn up response plans for a wide variety of scenarios. Andrews declined to comment on what those scenarios entail, but he said that they are reviewed on a regular basis and that some of them have even been put through full simulations.

“Our credo is that some things you have to continually improve,” says Andrews. To that end, Andrews says that VIA Rail has worked very hard to identify areas of potential weakness and correct them before they can become bigger problems.

Andrews also says that VIA Rail maintains very close ties with government, law enforcement and the railway industry as a whole.

Andrews also says that, VIA Rail puts its employees through security training in which they are taught to look for anything out of the ordinary. However, the amount of type of training received varies by geographic location and by individual occupation. For example on-train employees receive training for likely emergency situations such a derailment or a fire.

Andrews says that, it is up to the individual employee to determine whether or not a given situation requires first responders. To that end, Andrews says that VIA Rail has developed training programs that help its employees to become more observant.

Rob Cameron, a spokesperson for the Railway Association of Canada said the Canadian railway industry has recently signed a memorandum of understanding with Transport Canada concerning security practices in the railway industry. The new agreement between the RAC and Transport Canada replaces a previous agreement that was signed in 1997.

The agreement calls for improvement to current security practices, which include better record keeping and more frequent security drills. Over 100 miles of freight traffic cross the Canadian-America border every day. As a result, a major point in the agreement between the railroad industry and the government included the implementation of scanners at all major cross boarder railroad links as well as more stringent guidelines for the construction freight cars. Together these measures are meant to cut down of the risk of toxic gases or chemicals being spilled in the event of a derailment.

In order to better protect passengers, the Association says VIA Rail is required to verify the identity of all ticket holders on its trains. VIA Rail also has letters of agreement with provincial and federal law enforcement bodies that allows them on to VIA Rail property to enforce trespassing and loitering laws. This is intended to increase police visibility as well as provide law enforcement with opportunity to train K-9 units in a real world environment.

Dr. Stairs also believes that the Canadian railway network is vulnerable to such an attack. He believes that while other areas of infrastructure, such as power distribution and sewer systems are more inviting targets, trains are not immune to being targets for terrorism.

“We are heavily dependent on vulnerable infrastructure,” said Stairs, “for example-electricity transmission lines, pipe lines, seaway transport systems etc, etc.”

Stairs also says that railways are not nearly as well guarded as other forms of mass transport such as airplanes. He concedes that this is due in large part to the fact that infrastructure needed to support a large scale railway network is very spread out. However, he also believes that access points such as railways stations, ports and bridges are not very well protected.

In addition, Stairs also questions the Transport Canada claim that the Canadian railway network is among the most secure in the world. He does not believe that the evidence to back this claim exists, but also argues that because Canada’s major railways are geared towards the transportation of goods, not people, “it might be harder to get a spectacular death-dealing accident out of the Canadian system.”

Durette said that railway security has changed considerably since the attacks on the World Trade Center in 2001. She credits much of this to the Madrid train bombings in March 2004.

Since that time, Transport Canada has been working with individual railways and the railway industry as a whole to ensure that the Canadian rail network is safe and secure.

“The safety and security of the whole transport system are top priorities for Transport Canada.”

Since 2004, Transport Canada has been working with leaders in the railway industry to build partnerships with a goal towards improving communication. Regular communication is important for the sharing of reliable information among participating railway operators. In addition, a reliable communications network is also important for reliable communication between railway operators and the government.

The memorandum of understanding that was signed in 1997 and up-dated in November, 2007 calls for regular communications between individual railways, Transport Canada and the Minister of Transportation, Industry and Communications. According to Transport Canada, each railway is required to submit an individual security plan to the government, which is to be reviewed at least once a year. Malcolm Andrews confirmed that VIA Rail has response plans for a variety of scenarios, however, due to their sensitive nature, Andrews was unable to comment further.

According to Durette, these security plans outline procedures for sharing information, practicing security drills and physical security measures such as fences, lighting, security cameras and improved employee awareness programs.

Transport Canada is also instituting Transit Secure, a two year program designed to provide financial assistance for transit operators in major Canadian cities that are seeking to make upgrades to their security arrangements.

Durette did not deny the existence of an emergency response plan should the Canadian rail network be disrupted by terrorists, but declined to comment further, saying only such a plan exists.

Manon Berube, a public liaison officer for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, was able to confirm that CSIS does issue regular threat assessments concerning the state of Canada’s national security. She was unable to comment further, however, saying only that, “counter-terrorism is our number one priority.” Documentation obtained from CSIS’ website indicates that Canada is not immune to the possibility of home grown terrorism, as well as groups and individuals connected to or inspired by Al Qaeda.


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