Sunday, June 12, 2011

Trains are not planes

I want to post an explanation for my last post, and an elaboration of some of the points I raised in it. Recently our senior senator has been making a push to increase "security" on intercity trains and buses. I haven't written very much on this topic before because frankly it makes my blood boil, and I'm afraid I'll wind up TYPING IN ALL CAPS and all my frustration will burst out in one big incoherent rant. The satire has helped me to vent a bit.

What is it that has me in this state? Mainly it's the combination of idiocies: delays and frustrations from security theater joining with monitoring of private activities to discourage transit ridership. It's a perfect storm of evil.

The first reason is that, as Adron explains, most "airport security" is actually ineffective. The biggest improvement in airline security since September 11 has been reinforcing the cockpit doors. John Gilmore made an excellent case that requiring identification to fly on airplanes is both ineffective and unconstitutional. The shoe inspections, backscatter machines and body cavity searches are unnecessary, ineffective and intrusive. Their main point is to convince us that the Government is Doing Something.

The next point is that trains and buses are not planes. By their nature they require much less security, and the kind of security is different. Anyone who acts like they're the same is an idiot, and Chuck Schumer regularly embarrasses the state of New York when he opens his mouth about transit security and lets the whole world see what an idiot we elected.

There's one major thing to keep in mind when anyone makes a comparison between trains and planes: it's easy to crash a plane into a building; you just have to take control. It's much harder to crash a train into a building. Not completely impossible, but almost. It's relatively easy to crash a bus into a building, but they tend to be smaller than planes and not filled with tons of kerosene, so they don't do as much damage.

Of course, it is possible to carry out mass murder on trains, as was done by Al Qaeda affiliates in Madrid in 2004, and in London in 2005. But there have not been any similar attacks since, and my guess is that the terrorist leaders didn't feel they were worthwhile. 191 people were killed in Madrid, and 56 in London; compare that to the 2,996 deaths that immediately resulted from the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon in 2001. In fact, if you glance over Wikipedia's list of terrorist incidents involving railway systems, the numbers of dead and wounded are all really tiny in comparison to the World Trade Center attacks, despite requiring as much planning and coordination.

Similarly with buses, Palestinian suicide bombers carried out a series of widely reported attacks on buses from 1989 through 2008, and only managed to kill 804 people. Their biggest year was when they killed 237 people in 2002 - but it was done in 46 separate attacks, most of which were in cafes and markets, not on buses. These attacks have had an effect, but they required a lot of coordination and numerous operatives over a nineteen-year period. Most importantly, the attackers felt that they were defending their home territory, and did not have to travel far to do it.

So that's why the current airline security measures are ineffective, and why they would be even less effective applied to trains and buses. In a future post, I'll discuss how the current security measures are discouraging people from using transit, and why the proposed ones would be even worse.


Adirondacker12800 said...

LIRR has had an terrorist attack. Though that was really more "crazy person decides to shoot up a train" attack.
Chuckie really has to talk to Rep. McCarthy (NY4) about train security. I'm sure she has a lot to say about it.

Alon Levy said...

You're giving Schumer et al too much credit when you talk about the attacks in Madrid and London. Those attacks targeted a train station and subways, respectively; they did not target intercity rail. The last time a high-speed train was bombed was in 1983, and the death toll was so low (2) it embarrassed the terrorists into never trying it again.

Unknown said...

Exactly -- trains are not only useless as an "attack vector" (whereas planes are useful that way), they're quite robust, and even catastrophic failures don't tend to result in many casualties.

Essentially a train is merely a somewhat crowded place, like a club, a restaurant, a movie theatre, etc.

Airport-style security measures are no more reasonable for trains than they are for any of those places.