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Paz Shabtai

The attempted attack by an armed man aboard a train in Europe has brought attention in the United States and Europe to the vulnerability of rail passengers and to whether current security measures should be increased or even changed.

Train stations, unlike airports, are not guarded by police or a security personnel with metal detectors or body scanners. In fact, most railroad stations have minimal scrutiny for people boarding the trains. In the United States, larger stations have armed police officers, often with bomb-sniffing dogs. Passengers and baggage are randomly searched – but only at some of the largest stations, such as Union Station in Washington and Pennsylvania Station in New York – a train line that is considered in need of security. Smaller train stations, however, often have less security means, if any.

Rail security has been a high priority in the United States ever since the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004. Similar attacks in London and Mumbai also focused more attention on the railroads. However, a report by the Department of Homeland Security in 2011 has revealed security gaps in many of the train stations inspected. Congress and security experts have debated whether to install screening systems at railroad stations similar to those at airports, but costs of such an effort quickly debunked those notions, as did passengers’ resistance to them.

In Europe, the latest attack has caused a bit more of a reaction – at least for some. Nathalie Pierard, a spokesperson for SNCB, Belgium’s national rail company, said passengers can also expect to have their bags checked: “Random luggage searches will be carried out on international trains, so it might take a little time and travellers should know that boarding trains might take more time and that their luggage could be searched”. Travelers are reportedly being patient and understanding.

France, however, is not as compliant to severe security checks at its train station and some warn that such security will decrease efficiency. But efficiency is not the only problem. Many of the railway hubs still in service today were built in the 19th and 20th centuries and were designed to maximise the movement of people onto and off of trains – a design that would make stopping for security checks difficult, with dozens of trains departing or arriving at peak times. Moreover, large rail hubs are served by a vast network of smaller stations, 3,000 of them in France alone. Refitting even the largest train stations in paris to meet security as in airports will cost a huge sum of money.

The Belgian, French and German Transport Ministers are expected to meet soon to discuss improving cooperation between border police forces.

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