Sunday, September 27, 2009

Travel Restrictions

The most paranoid among us see surface modes of transportation in the same light as air transport when it comes to security. Amtrak has slowly started to roll over for the Homeland Security people, and more and more "exercises" in security are being held on commuter routes - particularly in the East. It seems that we will eventually have to undergo airline-like security checks, at least on Amtrak, if our current terrorism paranoia continues. But is it paranoia? Or is it a necessary response to where our western civilization stands in the world?

Is it logical to need airline-like security measures on Amtrak? The need for air security is grounded, at least in part, on the enormous potential for destruction of property and taking of human life that an airliner in the skies over just about any populated area presents. The airliners themselves are destructive enough, but add chemical, biological, or radiological elements, and the potential is even higher. Good, we've established that this is probably not paranoia, but a real possiblity.

Now let's look at Amtrak. If you could take over a train, you couldn't drive it into any old building. You certainly could do a lot of damage with the train and kill a lot of people, but you probably won't find a building you can bring down. Locomotives don't carry the enormous amounts of combustible fuels that airliners do. In addition, the places where Amtrak routes enter the interior structural elements of massive buildings are few and far between. But they do exist. If you crashed an Amtrak train in there, would you bring down the building? From an engineering standpoint, probably not. As heavy as it is, the total momentum (product of mass times velocity) of an Amtrak train going the fastest it could go without derailing and still get into these places is far lower than the momentum of a flying airliner. (Perhaps a serendipitous side effect of foot-dragging on high speed rail.)

But what if we add biological, chemical, radiologic and/or explosive elements? Again, the potential for spread is greater, but in all cases more confined. The same argument about momentum applies to spread of these elements, and the only other factor for the "large building" scenario is that enough explosives could probably not be physically carried onto Amtrak to do this. Spread of heat and flame would be more retarded in the subterranean confines where most trains enter large buildings. Again, too, there would be destruction and loss of life on board the train.

Some would say that risk is too high to take, so the answer is an unqualified yes. We need airline-style security on Amtrak.

I disagree. Risk must be handled proportionately. For instance, the worse your credit rating, the more interest you pay proportionately for a loan. (Although the current administration may put a stop to this.) If you can stop a ten-pound cannonball with three inches of steel, you don't need three inches of steel to stop a one-pound shell. As Amtrak is proportionately more safe for the public at large, we should be able to be proportionately more free of the restrictions imposed by airline-style security.

That's my opinion.

©2009 C. A. Turek -