Thinking the unthinkable

Posted by Fred Frailey
on Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Cathie and I rode the Cape May/Lewes Ferry across Delaware Bay this weekend to attend a wedding. It’s a relaxing, 90-minute trip between Delaware and the southern tip of New Jersey. On the way back, my mind got to wandering: What a perfect setup for a terrorist! You drive your car onto the boat. Once well away from shore you take your weapons out of the trunk and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop you doing what happens next.

Kind of like what could happen on a long-distance train, itself somewhere in the middle of nowhere and just as far from help.

After the near-disaster aboard the high-speed train in France recently, rail safety in the age of terrorism is on everyone’s mind, including the minds of those people running Amtrak. A notice sent to Northeast Corridor employees September 1 says this: “While there have been no reported threats against Amtrak, the majority of terrorist attacks worldwide have occurred on transportation systems. Therefore, the potential for such an attack on the infrastructure of a passenger rail or transit system must be treated as a considerable threat and danger. Typically, this type of attack would target areas commonly referred to as soft targets. Soft targets are defined as facilities and/or personnel that have limited safeguards to protect them against terrorist attack. . . . Railroad bridges, stations, and tunnels generally fall under this definition and require special attention.”

The bulletin goes on to specify things to be alert for—the “seven signs of terrorist activity.” I won’t list them, but those reading this who (like me) would call themselves lovers of trains need to be on notice: Showing unusual interest in the workings of a railroad could get you in a hot spot.

In its April 2003 issue, Trains Magazine’s cover said this: “Is being a railfan unAmerican? War. Security. Freedom. 9-11 has changed the equation again.” It was a provocative cover story by the Trains staff and contributing writer David Lustig. Fortunately, the worst fears expressed in that essay haven’t come to pass. Up until now, Amtrak police and employees and railroaders in general recognize railfans for what they are and are tolerant of us. Don’t expect this to always be the case. So don’t act suspicious in an unusual place. Don’t trespass. Don’t try to bypass security measures. Don’t look like you’re casing the joint, in other words. Call Amtrak police (800-331-0008) if your own suspicions are aroused—as knowledgeable people, you can spot a problem and act upon your awareness as well as any railroad employee. And be respectful and cooperative if someone, particularly a cop, pulls you aside.

As expected, U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal is already hogging the microphone on this issue. Blumenthal received my Hypocrite of the Year Award just last week for demanding that the government heavily fine any railroad that doesn’t have positive train control installed by the December 31 statutory deadline—except for those railroads in his own home state of Connecticut. He and fellow Democratic senator Cory Booker of New Jersey asked this of the Transportation Security Administration: Approve security plans for railroads that are considered high-risk targets, which of course would include Amtrak; issue regs on training standards for rail employees regarding recognition and action against such threats, and provide a means for conducting “name-based security background checks.”

As it happens, all these things seem reasonable to me. They were all authorized by a law Congress passed in 2007 but haven’t been implemented. I will point out that Congress spoke but refused to appropriate a dime for any of this to happen—yet another unfunded mandate, which may explain why TSA has not done these things. Yet what none of us want is for rail stations to look like airports. So reasonable measures short of that to discourage terrorist activity is the lesser of evils.

I was in a car this week with one of my relatives. On the radio CBS News and National Public Radio reported one example of human failure after another—refugee mistreatment, ethnic cleansing, wars, terrorist acts, mass murders, random murders, public indifference to violence and on and on. It was a truly depressing listening experience. “We’re a sorry lot of God’s creatures,” my relation said, and I agreed. So I’ll stop with these two bits of advice: First, don’t expect the freedom you have had around railroads to always remain that way. And second, to protect your right to watch trains in the future, keep your eyes open.—Fred W. Frailey

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