Monday, April 10, 2006

Passenger Rail and Security

Is Amtrak safe?

We don't know, but there are a group of Federal agents here in Albuquerque that do a heck of a job finding people that should not be riding Amtrak.

Out in the West, Amtrak runs over hundreds of miles of unprotected railroad in the geographic center of the Middle of Nowhere, and it does OK. We recall one historical incident of sabotage on the old route through Phoenix, AZ, but none recently and certainly none after 911. Actually, there are probably more route miles in rural, unprotected areas back east, but we would have to do some calculation to verify this.

Were Amtrak not rooted in traditional railroading; if it had a true hub and spoke system and automated boarding like the airlines; if it were a more spectacular operation; and if it were perceived that a significant disruption of service would be viewed as a catastrophe; yes, we think Amtrak would have more problems with security than it now does.

We would certainly like to see Amtrak have a more spectacular, more frequent, more dependable reputation. We would like to see passenger rail that everyone could depend on. It would seem that, from the standpoint of security, that would come with some costs.

As with commuter rail, we do not think it would be possible to do airline-like screening. Were we to develop a spot-check method for rail that we could depend on, then we would also like to see it applied to the airlines. But not before the passenger railroads recover a bit of their ridership.

The probability of detection is higher on trains, even trains that are out on the line between stations. The possibility of thwarting an attempt aboard a train is also higher. Cars can be switched, shunted, and put out of the train. An inexperienced terrorist couldn't likely operate a train with the bludgeon-like accuracy of a novice pilot in a jet cockpit. Even a diesel locomotive full of fuel isn't the firebomb that a fully fueled aircraft can be. Hazardous cargoes are another story, but we are talking about Amtrak.

For a lot of reasons, Amtrak and Passenger Rail in general is safe, or safer than the airlines, maybe even safer than Greyhound, when it comes to terrorist threats. When you are on a station platform waiting to board or just watching trains, and when you see the armed peace officer watching you, remember how much nicer it still is to ride the train.

On a Similar Topic

Norm Mineta, who, in our opinion, is nothing if not bad for Amtrak, was tooting the DOT's horn about successful tests of so-called collision proof passenger cars. (They reduced interior collision damage zones by about 50% in 30mph plus collisions, meaning some passengers still would suffer injury.) The goodness of the new cars will only benefit commuters for awhile. They way Norm and Company view Amtrak subsidies, it will be (a cold day) sometime after 2015 when Amtrak has even a chance of having cars built to these standards.

The good news is that the frequency of collisions resulting in crushing damage to Amtrak cars has been very low. They incur far more damage and far less passenger injury in ordinary derailments.

We still think Amtrak is safer, but we don't know if it's safe.

© 2006 - C. A. Turek - mistertrains@gmail.com
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