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The Moscow metro bombings caused a panicked response in other major cities, with officials fearing copycat attacks.

There is no reason to expect any such copycat attacks this time, any more than have occurred after the many previous Moscow metro bombings.

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Subway 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 pretend otherwise.

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 deterring attackers?

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 terrorist detection/prevention

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 only.

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 Subways

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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Originally published 2 Apr 2010, last update 30 May 2021

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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