Train Attack in Europe Puts Focus on Vulnerability of U.S. Rail -


WASHINGTON — The attempted attack by an armed man aboard a high-speed train in Europe has raised new concerns in the United States about the vulnerability of rail passengers and whether current security measures are adequate.

Unlike airports, which are guarded with multiple layers of security — including airport police and Transportation Security Administration personnel operating metal detectors and full-body scanners — most railroad stations have minimal scrutiny for those boarding trains.

Larger stations have armed Amtrak police officers, often with bomb-sniffing dogs. Passengers and baggage are randomly searched at some of the major rail hubs, such as Union Station in Washington and Pennsylvania Station in New York.

“Passengers failing to consent to security procedures will be denied access to trains,” Christina E. Leeds, an Amtrak spokeswoman, said in an email Saturday.

Most smaller stations, however, lack any type of armed presence or security screening.

Armed military personnel are also assigned to patrol Pennsylvania Station. And at Union Station, large-screen monitors carry nonstop security warnings with requests for passengers to report suspicious activity.

Even so, these measures would hardly have been a guarantee against the kind of attack that was attempted on Friday in Europe, where screening of passengers at rail stations is also far less stringent than at airports.

The assault, on a train from Amsterdam to Paris, was largely thwarted when three Americans wrestled a man to the ground who was armed with an AK-47 rifle, a handgun and a box cutter. The authorities described the man as a 26-year-old Moroccan.

In the United States, Amtrak has a police force of about 500 officers. Smaller commuter rail services also have police forces, which randomly patrol passenger cars, particularly during rush hours or on special occasions, such as concerts or sporting events.

Since the Madrid train bombings that killed 191 people in 2004, the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration have made rail security a priority. Similar attacks in London and Mumbai also focused more attention on the railroads.

The T.S.A. has created a number of security teams called Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response, or VIPR, squads, assigned to patrol transportation hubs such as train and bus stations. According to the agency, the teams work with local and state and transportation officials to prevent terrorist attacks.

Most days, members of the squads can be seen patrolling Washington’s Union Station during rush hours. The teams consist of security inspectors, who may help screen passengers and luggage; behavior detection officers, who blend in with crowds to watch for suspicious activity; and explosives experts, according to the T.S.A.

According to the agency’s most recent budget documents, there are 31 teams that conducted more than 7,000 operations last year, including security patrols at train stations.

Still, security experts say trains remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks. A 2011 report by the Department of Homeland Security found security gaps at many Amtrak stations. Congress and security experts have long debated whether to institute screening systems at railroad stations similar to those at airports, but plans have gone nowhere — largely because of cost and resistance from passengers.

Amtrak, particularly on its high-speed train, the Acela, has cut into the airlines’ share of passengers in the busy Northeast corridor because of frustrations with airport screenings. Between New York and Washington, Amtrak said, 75 percent of travelers go by train, a share that has grown steadily since the Acela began service in 2000 and airport security tightened after 2001.

Before that, Amtrak had just over a third of the business between those cities.