Earlier this week, it was announced that the three American heroes, who prevented a terror attack on a train to Paris last summer, will be publishing a book in a few months – on August 21st, the event’s first anniversary. Anthony Sadler, Alek Skarlatos and Spencer Stone beat a would-be killer unconscious and saved many lives that day – brave actions that earned each one of them the French Legion of Honor.

I propose that in this country, we use the book, “The 15:17 to Paris,” to revisit the vulnerability of our nation’s rail system and rededicate our commitments at the federal, state and local level to improving rail system security nationwide.

The Paris Train Attack Ended Well – But Let’s Not Ignore the Lesson

The highlight of the book will be the reenactment of the thwarted attack when Ayoub el-Khazzani, a suspected Islamist militant, brandished an AK-style assault rifle. Stone, an Airman 1st Class, knocked the attacker down and grabbed him around the neck even while the gunman was slicing him with a box cutter. Skarlatos, a member of the Oregon Army National Guard, and Sadler, then a senior at California State University at Sacramento, helped disarm and restrain Khazzani.

Rail Safety and Security in the U.S. Is a Key Issue

The National Transportation Safety Board is already waving the red flag. Among its top priorities in 2016 is the need to counter the risk of disastrous tank car explosion in a major city and prevent tragedies like last year’s fatal Amtrak derailment in Philadelphia. As outlined in a Washington Post article on January 13, 2016 by Ashley Halsey, “the NTSB sent a stern message to Congress and federal regulators about the potential consequences of a rail accident…NTSB Chairman Christopher A. Hart invoked the memory of a runaway train that derailed in flames in Lac-Mégantic, Canada, in 2013, killing 47 people and burning down more than 30 buildings.”

“We’ve been lucky thus far that derailments involving flammable liquids in America have not yet occurred in a populated area,” Hart said. “But an American version of Lac-Mégantic could happen at any time. Instead of happening out in the middle of a wheat field it could happen in the middle of a big city.”

Such a Disaster Has Already Occurred in the U.S.

The risks are even greater in highly populated areas. Large sporting venues, for example, can be greatly impacted by a rail incident. Consider Orioles Park in Baltimore, Maryland, for example. On Wednesday afternoon, July 18, 2001, a disastrous accident struck downtown Baltimore. An explosion and fire in a railroad train tunnel filled “the heart of the city” with “chaos and confusion.” Emergency crews swarmed the downtown area as firefighters spent hours extinguishing the five-alarm blaze and police officers blocked off streets. Manhole covers popped loose and pipes shot water into the air as a torrent of water streamed down streets. Businesses, restaurants and building elevators were shut down. Hotel guests discovered their tap water had turned yellow and their air conditioning had died. Automobiles heading out of the city jammed roadways and thousands of people searched for ways to get home.

A pungent cloud of black smoke hung over Camden Yards, less than a mile from the fire, just as the crowd of fans were arriving for the ballgame. Baltimore Orioles management cancelled the game and safely evacuated all fans who entered the park. Two days later the area around Camden Yards was still highly congested with traffic as downtown Baltimore was repaired and cleaned up.

The Special Vulnerabilities of Mass Transit Systems

As the General Accounting Office (GAO) has pointed out in testimony before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, U.S. Senate United States General Accounting Office, certain characteristics of mass transit systems make them inherently vulnerable to terrorist attacks and difficult to secure.

The openness of mass transit systems can leave them vulnerable because transit officials cannot monitor or control who enters or leaves the systems. In addition, other characteristics of some transit systems — high ridership, expensive infrastructure, economic importance, and location (e.g., large metropolitan areas or tourist destinations) — also make them attractive targets because of the potential for mass casualties and economic damage.[1]

A Range of Strategies, Tactics, and Countermeasures

At Hillard Heintze, we have repeatedly found challenges common to both passenger and freight rail systems, primarily with the funding of security enhancements. Although some security improvements are inexpensive, such as posting passenger security awareness materials on trains and removing trash cans from subway platforms, many require substantial funding.

While the spectrum of strategies and countermeasure necessary to address critical infrastructure risks is broad, at minimum, an integrated rail system security program should include:

  • Regular risk threat and vulnerability assessments
  • Multi-agency active shooter and other emergency drills and table-top exercises
  • A dedicated security organization and a clearly documented security strategy
  • Robust protective intelligence collection and monitoring

We know that many rail systems have their own police force and engineering crews who monitor the trains, stations, and tracks; however, the small size of these units limits their ability to provide protection.

Bringing the safety and security of our federal, state and local rail systems and other critical infrastructure into full alignment with national standards won’t happen overnight. But it should be an increasingly strategic priority for our governing leaders. Starting now.


[1] Government Accounting Office. Some Actions Taken to Enhance Passenger and Freight Rail Security, but Significant Challenges Remain. March 23, 2004.

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