WASHINGTON — When the Amtrak train carrying Republican House members to a retreat crashed January 31 into an object on the track, one of the first things Rep. John Katko thought was that terrorists had struck.
Katko (R-N.Y.) chairman of the House Transportation and Protective Security Subcommittee, knows the vulnerability of the rails to terrorism.
“We were sitting ducks,” Katko told Talk Media News. “With the vulnerability of the rail system, it definitely rose in my mind. We were in the middle of nowhere, in a remote area. The train was stopped and there was really no protection there.”
In this case, the train carrying the GOP House members hit a truck that had stalled on the track. No terrorism was involved, according to the initial conclusion.
Katko said that does not assuage Congress regarding the terrorist threat to rail.
“We need to shed light on this subject,” he said. “We have the right concerns about air travel but the rail system is a much larger segment of people and a greater mass of people in smaller (settings).”
There is a good reason to worry, Katko and others say.
Last August, al-Qaeda published in its English-language magazine Inspire a step-by-step guide on how to derail trains and which train routes that would be best to target. The guide included a detailed 18-page-long set of instructions on how to build a device to derail trains, using non-traceable, easy to obtain materials.
It urged terrorists to place the derailment tool “on a bend and specifically a sharp corner” or “when the train reaches residential or large populated areas” to force a “collision with man-made structures, such as buildings, bridges or tunnels” or make the train “fall from a very high place,” the magazine said.
“The AQ piece last fall basically gave a blueprint for how to build a de-railing tool and then how to execute the attack. Frankly, it is a wonder that this hasn’t come to fruition yet. My concern is that it will,” said Rick Mathews, a public service professor, College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cyber Security, and Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy.
One of the top targets listed was “America’s high-speed train ‘Acela,’ ” because that Amtrak train services the heavily populated and traveled Northeast Corridor and because it “requires a whole mile so that it can come to a halt,” the article said.
Previously issued AQ guides were on how to make homemade car bombs, torch parked vehicles and how to carry out vehicular attacks. Such attacks were then carried out by terrorists in various parts of the world and continue to be a threat.
Publication of that last guidance prompted the Department of Homeland Security to issue a public warning about the potential threat of vehicle terrorism. No such warning was issued after the guide to derailment became public, however.
“If you will recall we came close to issuing a public warning after the raid on bin Laden’s compound due to the information gleaned from the materials in the compound,” Chad Wood, a DHS spokesman, told TMN. “In that case, we assessed the threat to be aspirational in nature and not operational – and instead – offered that information to our partners and stakeholders on keys to look out for and mitigation strategies should any terrorist regime attempt to conduct such an attack.”
The Transportation Security Administration, a part of DHS, has responsibility for the security of the transportation system including rail/surface transportation. A spokesman there said they would not have any comment.
A chart of the distribution of TSA revenues for the current year shows that zero percent of the revenues collected through the Freight Rail Fee and the Public Transportation and Passenger Trail fee are used for the mission to “prevent terrorism and enhance security,” DHS documents show.
That underscores one of the concerns of Katko.
“TSA is stretched very thin when it comes to rail security,” Katko said. “No doubt additional funding would help and a lot more bodies. There are lots of problems.”
Another critical issue that concerns Katko is background checks on those working on the rail system — with indications that such screening is minimal on many occasions, he said.
Katko and others note that much of the 160,000 miles of railroad track in the United States transport freight as well as passengers. Many freight trains containing chemicals and hazardous materials continue to travel through populated areas, a potential danger from a terrorist strike.
“While al Qaeda and ISIS and their compatriots have staged high profile attacks and plots targeting aviation in the U.S, their high profile attacks targeting rail tended to be either a long time ago (like Madrid and London), in concert with other targets (like Brussels) or in places people in the US pay less attention to (like Mumbai). This is unfortunate, because plots targeting rail infrastructure in the U.S. (like the Zazi plot) and Canada (like the 2013 Via Rail plot) have been very serious, and the recent suicide bombing attack in the New York City subway tunnel should be a pressing reminder of the threat,” said Brian Nussbaum, an assistant professor at the University of Albany who specializes in Cybersecurity & Terrorism.
“So I think some of it is that rail travel is not a major mode of transportation – as it is in Europe and elsewhere – outside a few major cities with light rail or commuter rail systems and the northeast corridor between DC and Boston,” Nussbaum said. “People are just less familiar with rail travel in many parts of the country, and thus spend less time thinking about it and its security.”