and Mass Transit Security Challenges
Airport security concepts don't
translate to mass transit situations
Throngs of people crowding into confined spaces make
tempting targets for terrorists, and security nightmares for
those charged with protecting our safety.
Safety and security is
inconvenient, expensive, and takes time to enforce.
We're willing to accept some
inconvenience and delays in return for greater safety/security
on a plane flight that involves us in hours of travel time
anyway, and a few more dollars for security on a $100+ airline
ticket is acceptable.
But few of us would be happy
doubling the journey time on local public transportation, few of
us would be happy paying several dollars extra per journey, and
few of us would want to remove our shoes and laptops as part of
boarding a bus or subway train.
Mass transit and security are
incompatible with each other, and it is silly to promise or
The West's Ridiculous Response
to the Moscow Bombings
An attack on any mass
transport system, anywhere in the world, has never been followed
immediately thereafter by a second attack in a second country.
In addition, it was quickly established that the
Moscow suicide bomber metro attacks
in March 2010 (click link for part 1 of this series) were yet
another outburst of exclusively anti-Russian sentiment by
terrorists focused solely on doing harm to Russia.
But major cities around the
world increased the alert levels for their mass transit
systems, although almost exclusively in ridiculous 'just for
show' expressions of force that would do absolutely nothing to
prevent suicide bombers from proceeding without any problems.
Most ridiculously, in New
York the NYPD sent police cars to various transit hubs so as to
'create high visibility to deter terrorism and reassure city
transit passengers'. If you can understand how the sight
of a parked police car close to a subway entrance would cause a
suicide bomber to give up and go home, please let me know.
The real motivation of that
action is revealed in the second part of the statement - to
reassure commuters, even though there was no substance to the
reassurance. Is that what transit security has become - a
security theater to reassure commuters, while not actually
New York also doubled police
patrols on the subway system, featuring policemen in military
gear and armed with fully automatic M-16 rifles. This is
as useless as were the gestures after 9/11 of sending tanks to
airport approaches and posting National Guardsmen inside
airports, also with automatic M-16 rifles.
Uniformed police harm not help
Why don't the people
responsible for protecting us against terrorist
bombers understand that suicide bombers don't want to battle it
out with cadres of heavily armed soldiers and policemen?
Suicide bombers want to stealthily infiltrate into
concentrations of people and then blow themselves up. If
they see a policeman, armed or not, they'll simply walk around
him rather than attack him.
Heavily armed police, geared
up with bulky/cumbersome protective clothing and weaponry, and
in a combat mindset, are useless to detect the innocuous semi-normal
looking person 'going with the flow' one minute, invisibly
surrounded by fellow commuters in
the rush crowd of peak hour; who then suddenly, in the
blink of an eye, transforms themselves into a deadly explosion.
Why not instead use
plainclothes agents who suicide bombers can't spot and avoid,
and have them easily mixing/mingling/moving through the crowds,
looking for suspicious people and possibly detecting/deterring
them without themselves being 'made' by the terrorists.
Uniformed police give the
element of surprise over to the terrorists. Plainclothes agents
take back that element of surprise and have a better chance of
being able to get to a suicide bomber and overpower them before
they detonate their explosives.
No Need for Panic
If you've read this far,
you'll already know that train and subway bombings, while rare, are
not uncommon. You'll also know that this
latest double attack is far from the most serious in terms of
casualties, and you'll also know that the situation surrounding
the event narrowly relates to internal problems within Russia
Other than it being yet
another subway bombing in Russia, the risk to other countries,
other cities, and their mass transportation systems remains the
same after the Moscow bombings as it was before them.
But suddenly, we have
heavily armed police swarming the subway systems, and nervous
passengers endorsing the dysfunctional police presence, and
these concerns are being inflamed by press reports and the
inevitable calls for more security in our subways and elsewhere
- the TSA spends only 2% of its budget on surface transportation
security, compared to 68% on aviation security.
Some Subway Statistics
Securing mass transit
systems is very difficult, due to their extensive nature, the
number of people who use them, the necessary ease of access and
egress, and the expectation that people
have of being able to conveniently, quickly and affordably get from the
street to the platform, onto a train, to their destination, and
back to the street again.
Moscow's metro system has 12
lines, 180 stations, 190 miles of track, and handles up to 7
million passengers on a weekday. London's underground
system also has 12 lines, with 275 stations on
253 miles of track. Although larger, it has fewer
passengers and is much less crowded than Moscow - it handles
about 3.5 million passengers per weekday.
Closer to home, New York has
26 routes, 468 stations and 660 miles of track. 5.2
million people use the subway on weekdays.
Throughout the US there are
971 subway stations, and countless more suburban and light rail
stations, bus stations and bus stops, ferry terminals and other
transportation hubs of all types.
Airport Security Won't Work on
As a comparison, the US has
250 commercial airports that handle more than 1000 passengers a
week, 138 of which handle an average of more than 1000
passengers a day, and only 51 of which handle more than 10,000
passengers a day. In total, an average of about 1.75
million people fly in the US every day - three times fewer than
New York subway passengers.
The busiest NY subway
station (Times Square) handles 50% more passengers than the busiest
US airport (Atlanta).
The TSA has approximately
45,000 employees to secure 450 airports around the US. As
you almost certainly know, notwithstanding this massive number
of staff, passing through airport security is a cumbersome and
time consuming process. The cost of the security is
substantial - we have a $2.50 per flight security surcharge
added to our tickets, and the final security created by the
security screeners, the delays, and the cost is at best
uncertain and unreliable.
To fly on a plane, we have
to give our names, genders, and dates of birth when booking a
ticket so our details can be checked against terrorist
databases, we have to show photo ID when checking in, we have to
take off our shoes and show our laptops, etc etc. Larger
pieces of luggage (ie checked bags) go through shipping
container sized special X-ray screening devices.
All of this is completely
impractical to impose on commuters. Any attempt to implement such
procedures would at least double the commute time, and would
double the cost of a ticket.
Adding airport style
security would not only at least double the commute time, but it would
massively reduce the capacity of subway stations to handle
people. Currently, major subway stations are barely
adequate to manage the crushing crowds of people pouring in from
the street and making their way to platforms and onto trains.
There are no holding areas for people to wait in line for
screening, and the amount of space for metal detectors, X-ray
machines, explosives detectors, full body imaging systems,
secondary screening areas, ID checking lines, and all the other
aspects of a rigorous screening system is way beyond anything
possible for most subway stations at present.
How Security Delays Kill More
People than Terrorists
Look at it another way.
With total ridership of about 1.6 billion passengers on the NY
subway system alone, adding a 5 minute delay to each of these
journeys would total 15,220 man years of wasted time each year.
In other words, these 15,220
man years of wasted time translate to about 220 life times -
the time and fractions of so many people's lives wasted by security delays would be the same as killing 440 middle aged
people each year on the NY subway system alone.
So what are the
organizations tasked with protecting mass transit doing to
protect our public transport systems, and is it working?
Please move on to part three of
this series for answers to that important question.
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2 Apr 2010, last update
21 Jul 2020
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