The recent multiple bombings against mass transportation targets in London, coupled with nearly identical terror attacks against commuter trains in Madrid in 2004, gives pause for concern that al Qaeda-linked (or inspired) groups might victimize American mass transit (particularly buses, subways and rail) in the coming months.

After the London attacks, the U.S. terror threat level for mass transit was raised from Code Yellow (Elevated) to Code Orange (High). U.S. mass transit systems are valued in the hundreds of billions of dollars, and tallied 9 billion passenger trips in 2000.

An analysis of global terrorist incidents involving ground and sub-surface transportation lends some credence to such concerns. Terror attacks against this sub-sector have occurred internationally: Europe (France), Asia (Japan), Latin America (Colombia), and the Middle East (Egypt and Israel) in the 1990s; and Europe (Russia), Asia (India and Philippines), Latin America (Colombia), and the Middle East (Turkey, Egypt, and Israel) during this decade. The Irish Republican Army bombed a Central London bus stop in 1975, killing one person and injuring twenty others.

Vulnerable target

Mass transportation is often victimized for a number of reasons:

The targets are plentiful and (up-to-now) minimally protected

Many targets exist in a small area

Only one perpetrator is need to carry out a (suicide) attack (excluding other operational assistance)

Relatively inexpensive and readily-available components can be used

It is easily accessible and inexpensive to enter; and

A compact, combustible setting allows for maximum carnage.

Terrorists have adjusted their modus operandi in targeting mass transit. After security measures were established at Israeli bus entrances, some attackers shifted to exploding themselves outside the bus – at bus stations and bus stops. Another Israeli bus was demolished when terrorists drove an explosives-laden car alongside a bus and detonated the explosives, killing 10 in October 2002. Other means of attack against buses include terrorists boarding a tourist bus in February 1990 in Egypt and opening fire with guns and grenades, killing 11. Perhaps, too, while greater focus is called for buses, subways and rail, other segments of mass transit – trolley cars and ferry boats – could be targets as well.

Increased security measures on some portions of European and American ground transportation were implemented shortly after the March 11 Madrid attacks, and London’s July 7 incidents. Countermeasures included greater use of uniformed and undercover police, bomb-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, incorporating explosives and bio-chem-radiological detection equipment, spot-testing individual, inspecting trash receptacles, and requiring photo identification when purchasing selected tickets.

Federal security grants

A post-March 11 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) measure, the Intercity Bus Security Grant Program, aims to improve security on intercity buses by taking measures to protect the driver, monitoring and commuting with buses, implementing and operating passenger and baggage screening programs, assessing critical needs and vulnerabilities, and training transportation personnel to recognize potential threats. Yet, even with an initial $15 million of funding, it is woefully under-funded, contrasting sharply with the allocation of billions of dollars to aviation security following Sept. 11.

Insufficient funding is an obstacle to countering mass transit terror. A September 2002 Government Accounting Office study estimated that selected security improvements at only eight transit agencies would cost $711 million. Mass transit customers might be required to pay security fees to help defray such costs, as is the case with post-Sept. 11 aviation security charges.

In 2004, after the Madrid attacks, the DHS undertook a series of rail security-related pilot programs. Passengers and their carry-on bags were screened for explosives at a commuter and train station in the Washington, D.C. area. A specialized railcar equipped with an on-board screening technology was used on a Connecticut commuter rail line. Screening customers once they are already onboard seems of dubious utility – at least at first glance.

Fully securing mass transit systems – whether with explosives/metal detectors, photo identification, pat-downs of passengers, etc. – would be costly, time-consuming and impractical; as by its very nature, mass transit requires ease of access and speed. Therefore, well-planned, uniquely tailored responses are the appropriate solutions for mass transit, and not haphazardly adopting from aviation counter-terror measures.

Legislation, funding, equipment/technologies, manpower and cohesive strategies (including use of threat assessments and improved intelligence, possible station and vehicle redesign, improved response/recovery plans, and greater public awareness) must be heralded to protect these sub-sectors right now. Unfortunately, London’s recent tangle with terror might not be viewed as close enough to U.S. soil to sustain American resolve in spurring significant, long-term and effective countermeasures to mass transit terror.

For too long, American society, by and large, believed that mass scale terrorism could never happen here. Little improvement in aviation security occurred here until we were hit. The U.S. cannot make the same mistake with mass transit terror. Corrective steps now will deter attacks and assuage their effects should they occur.