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Tough Tracks for Railroads

For every one person who takes an airplane for business or pleasure in the United States, another five reach their destination by rail, according to an analysis of industry data. And that traffic does not count the volume of cargo, much of it hazardous, transported by rail. Yet most of the money directed to securing transportation in the United States has gone to aviation.

For example, rail and transit (which cumulatively includes commuter rail, subways, buses, and light rail) is due to receive $150 million of federal funds for security initiatives in 2005, not including monies going to general transportation-security technology development. Those funds come in the form of grants to state and local governments.

During the same time frame, $5.1 billion has been earmarked for aviation security. A survey by the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) found that there would be a cumulative shortfall in security spending for passenger trains and buses of $6 billion.

As a result of these funding levels, freight and passenger railroads, including subway systems, have been left to depend mostly on their own resources to cobble together both high-tech and low-tech measures. The following analysis looks at the nature of the threats and technologies being tested or deployed to counter these threats.

Freight rail. The freight rail system comprises more than 500 freight railroads that operate along 200,000 miles of track. In addition, the Association of American Railroads (AAR) has identified 1,308 critical facilities, such as key bridges, tunnels, dispatch centers, and storage facilities. These railroads also carry a tremendous diversity of freight, each of which may require unique protection. Given the size and diversity of the system, it offers an “infinite” number of targets, according to congressional testimony given by Peter F. Guerrero and Norman J. Rabkin, both with the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Interconnectivity within the rail system and between the transportation sector and the rest of the economy is another major challenge. Imported freight can move from ship to train to truck, multiplying the security issues.

A breach in one mode can easily affect the others. Intermodal facilities, such as points where ports and railroads connect, are also high-value targets because of the conflation of passengers, freight, employees, and equipment, according to the GAO.

In addition, the large number of stakeholders makes security more complicated. Private companies and government agencies at every level share responsibility for rail security, and a multitude of both freight and commuter railroads may share the same track. This creates communications challenges and conflicting interests.

But the stakes are high and all of the stakeholders understand the importance of overcoming these barriers. Within this context, security experts generally identify two major threats to freight rail: hazardous chemicals and weapons of mass destruction.

Hazardous materials. A frequently cited threat to freight trains is the compromise of a railcar containing hazardous chemicals. According to the AAR, railroads ship about 1.7 million carloads of hazardous materials and hazardous waste annually.

One problem is that gaining access to railcars when they are not in transit is easy, says Neil Livingstone, CEO of security consulting firm Global Options LLC, which advises freight lines on how to improve security.

For proof of that, one need only consider that railcars and train bridges are often festooned with graffiti, notes Fred Millar, a hazardous-materials specialist and a member of the Washington, D.C., Local Emergency Planning Commission. That’s a graphic depiction of how “porous” the freight rail system really is.

Another problem is that because of their size, rail yards are difficult to protect cost-effectively. And only one or two officers typically patrol a large rail yard, says Livingstone.

Fences surrounding rail yards are often riddled with holes. Last May, a New Haven, Connecticut, television news team reported that it was able to get to commuter trains in a rail yard in the middle of the night by slipping through such holes.

The vulnerability is considerable given that tank cars are not designed to withstand terrorist attack, says Millar. That view was shared by other experts as well.

“The problem is I can take an armor-piercing round and punch a hole in a tank car from a safe distance,” explains Livingstone. “Depending on what’s in it, I can get a major release.”

Dean Blauser, a chemical expert with HazMat Solutions in Grand Haven, Michigan, concurs, noting that the chemicals within railcars could be released by a shot from a powerful weapon, such as a 50-millimeter rifle, an explosion, or release of a valve, not to mention derailment.

Adding to the challenge is that railcar security is not solely in the hands of railroads, Blauser points out. Cars carrying chemicals for, say, a pharmaceutical manufacturer are typically owned by the pharmaceutical company itself. 

As for what harm could occur if a terrorist did cause a chemical release, the National Transportation Security Board (NTSB) and the U.S. Coast Guard have estimated that a major chlorine gas leak can travel two miles in 10 minutes and remain “acutely toxic” for 20 miles, Millar notes.

Yet Tom Murta, the director of infrastructure protection at CSX, one of the largest U.S. freight railroads, says that speculation about the effects of an attack may overstate the danger. “We don’t know what will happen when you shoot a car,” Murta says. Even if the car is punctured, any release, the amount of release, and the direction of its spread depend on the train’s physical location, meteorological conditions, and so on.

Further, Murta says, cars may not be the attractive target that some assume they represent. He notes that terrorists “do not like randomness” and prefer attacks where the impact can be guaranteed. Freight trains don’t operate on nearly as tight a schedule as passenger trains do, he says. That probably puts railcars low on their list of preferred targets, because they can’t be sure of the car’s destination or the effect of an attack.

Critics point out that cars with dangerous materials bear placards describing what’s inside. While that is done so that emergency responders will know how to deal with a release, it is also a red flag to terrorists. These placards are like bulls-eyes, say critics.

And while massive chemical releases haven’t wreaked havoc in the United States, even routine mishaps are dangerous and disruptive. For example, a freight train carrying chemicals through a tunnel in Baltimore on July 18, 2001, caught fire, releasing hydrochloric acid and tripropylene. The fire shut down portions of the city for days.

Then, on January 18, 2002, in Minot, North Dakota, 31 cars of a 112-car train, 15 of which were carrying anhydrous ammonia, derailed. Eight of the cars ruptured. One person died and 11 others were seriously hurt. The NTSB concluded that the type of steel used for the tank shells of cars contributed to the ruptures. Many pressurized tank cars in use today employ the same type of steel.

Last September in an East St. Louis switching yard, two tankers collided and exploded, releasing highly flammable liquid vinyl acetate into the air. It forced the evacuation of 140 people in a nearby community and sent people to the hospital complaining of respiratory problems.

Aware of the risk posed by freight trains loaded with hazardous chemicals that roll within four blocks of the Capitol, Washington, D.C., officials are now in discussions with CSX and other stakeholders to reroute shipments around the city. Several other cities are in similar discussions with freight railroads, says Millar.

In many cases, rerouting trains is actually quicker, and thus less expensive, than the current route, as is the case with Cleveland, says Millar. The real issue is competition among railroads, because the route may belong to another line. “It would mean Norfolk Southern giving cargo to CSX,” he says.

More to the point is whether rerouting solves the problem. Rerouting materials around population centers could actually increase security risks, according to one official. “For example, rerouting can involve an increase in miles traveled, and those additional miles could be on rail infrastructure less suitable (for a variety of reasons) to handling hazardous materials,” said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the AAR, in testimony to the Senate Commerce Committee.

“Emergency response capability among alternate routes may lack requisite expertise in handling the most dangerous commodities,” he noted. Moreover, he said, “Additional switching and handling of cars along with added ‘dwell time’ in yards—all potential consequences of using less efficient routes—also have the effect of increasing exposure.”

Indeed, if freight railroads were unable to find different routes, hazardous material would be transported over the highways, Hamberger warned. A chance of a spill is much greater on the roads, he said. Millar responds that only the most dangerous cargo would have to be rerouted, not the entire freight system.

WMDs. Another concern is that terrorists could transport weapons of mass destruction (WMDs) in containers loaded on freight cars, without anyone being the wiser until it was too late, according to Brian Jenkins, terrorism expert at the RAND Corporation. WMDs would likely come straight from a port where, at least currently, many containers pass without inspection. (Tests for scanning cars are discussed later.)

Passenger trains. Subways and commuter trains cover far less track than do freight trains, but the tightly scheduled, frequent trips and packed trains, which often operate underground or in confined spaces, make these modes a high-impact terrorist target.

Commuter rail lines, which carry passengers between close-in suburbs and city centers, carried 414 million riders in 2002 (the latest year for which complete data was available), according to APTA. These trips passed through 1,139 stations on 7,283 miles of track, logging 9.5 billion passenger-miles.

Subways did heavier duty in 2002. Almost 2.7 billion riders logged 13.6 billion passenger-miles, boarding from 994 different stations and covering 2,179 miles of track.

Commonly cited threats to passenger-train security include bombs (as in the Madrid attacks) as well as chemical or biological weapons.

Howard Safir, former commissioner of the police and fire departments of New York and now a security consultant, says that his biggest fear on passenger rail lines is a conventional bomb attack like that perpetrated in Madrid. Asked why it hasn’t happened in the United States yet, Safir says that attempts have occurred. He recounts how police prevented two Palestinian men from detonating backpack bombs in the Brooklyn subway system in 1998.

As with bombs, precedent for the successful execution of a biochemical attack on rail lines exists. At least since the 1995 Aum Shinrikyo sarin attack in the Tokyo subway, the U.S. government and various organizations have warned about a chemical or biological attack in an underground or enclosed rail station.

Solutions. The industry has not stood still since 9-11. Both government and the private sector have been exploring how to address risks.

Agencies such as the Department of Transportation through its Research and Special Projects Administration require shippers of hazardous materials to have security plans, and railroads have many measures in place that are invisible to the public. For example, Murta says, rail operators focus on certain shipments and implement countermeasures to make those shipments less attractive targets.

In addition, many efforts are underway to test the extent to which high-tech solutions represent feasible countermeasures. Explosives-detection technology, for example, was tested on passenger railroads last year by the TSA.

Other federally funded efforts are looking at the expansion of an existing system called Positive Train Control, as well as at tank-car-breach detection technology, ground-penetrating radar, rollover simulators, and light detection and ranging technology (LiDAR). Beyond these cutting-edge tools, freight and passenger railroads are looking at or have deployed smart CCTV, chemical-agent detectors, intrusion detection, and cargo-inspection systems.

Explosives detection. The TSA conducted three pilot tests of explosives screening technology in 2004, collectively called the Transit and Rail Inspection Pilot (TRIP).

In the first phase of TRIP, authorities at the New Carrollton train station in Maryland screened passengers and their carry-ons using “puff portal machines,” says TSA spokesperson Darrin Kayser. The puff portal, General Electric’s Entryscan3 system, blew a small amount of air on the traveler before he or she boarded; it then screened the particles for explosives.

In addition, TSA personnel used L-3 Communications Multi-View Tomography X-Ray units to scan carry-on bags for bulk explosives. If a positive reading came up, a Smiths Barrier Ionscan 400B explosives-trace-detection system was used as a secondary check.

In all, more than 9,000 passengers and 10,000 bags passed through the system during the test, which lasted the month of May. Despite conditions more prone to environmental disturbance than at airports, Kayser said the machines were “found to be effective at detecting explosives” and didn’t significantly inconvenience passengers.

The average screening time at the entire checkpoint was 96 seconds, according to the TSA. Multiple passengers underwent different parts of the process at the same time. The TSA is still evaluating whether and how the technologies will be deployed at train stations and aboard trains.

Phase two occurred during three weeks in June at Washington, D.C.’s Union Station. Officials there screened checked bags for explosives using explosives-detection systems from two companies: Smiths Heimann for the primary screen and Smiths Barringer for secondary screening. Kayser says that they proved effective enough to deploy during the Republican National Convention for rail security.

In the third phase in mid-summer, passengers on Connecticut commuter trains had their bags run through x-ray machines by L-3 Communications and their tickets checked with document scanners by Smiths Detection for traces of explosives while the train was in motion. If x-rays showed explosives, the GE Iontrack was deployed as a secondary check.

All three technologies had lower false alarm rates than expected—ranging from less than 2 percent to less than 5 percent, according to the TSA. In addition, at each stop it took an average of 4.2 minutes to screen all boarding passengers and their baggage. Again, Kayser says that these technologies were deemed effective. “TSA looks to expand the use of these technologies in the future,” he says.

These tests are a “step in the right direction,” according to Jeff Warsh, former executive director of New Jersey Transit, since they represent efforts to close a “huge vulnerability.”

But other experts are skeptical of the feasibility of using these solutions on a large scale. It might be possible to conduct screening on Amtrak Acela trains along the northeast corridor, says Global Options’ Livingstone, because of the lower numbers of people involved, but not elsewhere. “I don’t see how you handle the volume of the people,” he says.

Livingstone says that dozens of people in the rail industry with whom he has discussed the matter agree that, as he puts it, “you can’t even stop theft, much less a bomb.” The upshot is that screening for explosives isn’t feasible, Livingstone and other rail security experts conclude.

They are less skeptical about screening for chemical agents. Unlike explosives-screening tools, chemical-agent “sniffers” are invisible to the rider and pose no hassle. A downside of that technology, however, is high cost. As discussed later in the article, subway officials are starting to deploy this type of technology.

PTC. Positive Train Control (PTC) is a method used to ensure rail safety by controlling speed and preventing collisions and derailments. Like other safety technologies, it has been found to have security applications as well. If a terrorist were to commandeer a train, for example, PTC technology could disable the train.

Two types of PTC exist, according to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA): transponder-based and communications-based. With the former, transponders are laid along the track at certain intervals. As a locomotive passes over a transponder, that transponder sends train data, such as speed and location, to a server aboard the locomotive. The onboard server compares this information with its database and determines permitted speeds and limits of operation.  The system stops the train if it exceeds any of these limits.

In communications-based PTC, which is still in development, the same data is collected via wireless controls— including microprocessors, global positioning systems, data radio networks, and train-dispatch software—and sent to a central server. As with transponder-based PTC, an onboard computer receives train status data and can stop the train, but the data is also sent to a central server so someone can monitor the location of various trains at once.

The FRA has been looking into greater deployment of PTC to track all hazardous rail shipments. In a project called the North American Joint Positive Train Control Program, communications-based PTC technology is being tested between St. Louis and Chicago on track owned by Union Pacific.

One of the challenges is that the platform must be interoperable because several railroads share the same track, according to Jo Strang, the FRA’s deputy associate administrator for development. That’s the case throughout most of the United States, she says.

In another three-phase program, the FRA has been working with the Alaska Railroad to replace the railroad’s current method of transmitting train data by radio from dispatchers to train crews and track workers. Phase I involved the development and installation of a computer-aided dispatching system by GE-Harris for a dispatching center in Anchorage. Phase II involved the installation of a digital data communications system along the entire railroad. Both phases are complete.

Phase III, involving the design and development of onboard computers, has been suspended, however, due to a contract disagreement with the vendor, according to the FRA.

The latest-generation of PTC has had few takers so far. Railroads are reluctant to take the plunge into communications-based PTC until tests have been concluded and the results analyzed. “They’re waiting for someone to have a success,” Strang says.

Breach detection. Prevention is, of course, always the primary objective. But failing that, early detection can make the difference between a minor problem and a major catastrophe. With that in mind, the government and rail companies are looking for ways to monitor cars for problems.

One test was carried out last year when DHS and the FRA’s Office of Research & Development ran an experiment at the Transportation Technology Center in Pueblo, Colorado. The goal was to evaluate the feasibility of placing hydrophones (instruments for detecting sound in water) inside tank cars to detect breaches by distinguishing the sound a breach would make from background noises typically found in tank cars. The results are promising.

A second goal was to test plugging devices. In phase I of testing, a variety of weapons were used to punch holes in tank cars. The cars were filled with water to simulate the pressure that the contents would normally exert, and eight different prototype plugging devices were tested, explains Strang.

Three of the eight performed well, reports Strang. Though she won’t provide detail on the devices, she describes all three as “low tech.” Phase II, in which these devices will be tested on cars in motion, is ready to go, she says.

It also became clear, Strang says, that emergency responders would need transparent shields that would both protect them from dangerous substances and permit them to see what they were doing. Strang says DHS is working on such a shield that will stand up to destructive agents.

In an eventual phase III, emergency responders will test protective equipment and plugging devices using actual materials typically transported in tank cars. The challenge, Strang says, will be for the plugs to resist the tremendous amount of force exerted by pressurized tank cars.

Radar. Another technology being tested by the FRA allows railroads to view the subsurface of track using ground-penetrating radar. The technology has safety uses, specifically to check for chronic maintenance problems in track subgrades, but it has potential for bomb detection as well.

Strang says that the technology has passed a “proof of concept” phase and will soon be tested in various environments. The FRA is planning to make the technology available to “any railroad that wants to use it,” Strang says, both for safety and bomb-detection.

Rollover simulation. The FRA has been using a rollover simulator to train emergency responders to deal with disorientation. “If you get beyond a 45-degree angle,” explains Strang, “your situational awareness changes…. Your ability to figure out where the emergency exits are is diminished.”

The testing, being performed in Greenbelt, Maryland, will determine how passengers react in such situations and how the responder community can gain access to cars that have rolled over. Various arrangements and types of passenger cars are being tested, says Strang. Results are expected in June.

LiDAR. Another technology aimed at the responder community is LiDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging technology. It is currently being used for safety applications, but is getting a second look for use in security. “We know this will be effective and will be a tremendous tool for industry and government,” says Nancy Wilson, senior assistant vice president, safety and security, for the AAR.

With LiDAR technology, which uses a GPS-controlled laser scan to create three-dimensional images, train lines can perform aerial surveys of their rights-of-way to create an electronic map of their infrastructure. The system, still being tested by the AAR, is expected to provide train dispatchers, police, and other emergency responders with maps of affected areas during emergencies.

CCTV. With so much attention on efficient use of video, smart CCTV software—including “left-object” detection, motion tracking, and anomaly detection—has been making rapid strides. The rail industry has started to notice.

Fredrik Nilsson, general manager of network-video supplier Axis Communications, which is in discussions to partner with digital-video-analysis software companies, says that most attention has come from the passenger side, particularly for securing stations. Barry Einsig, a rail security expert with ADT, has also seen interest in this technology from commuter rail systems. “Far and away, CCTV is the leader in everyone’s conversation,” he says.

Once again, however, the impediment to implementing this type of solution is the shortage of money and staff resources. “Every transit company has the concept, but not the money,” says Einsig. Video software takes a lot of onus off of security officers—they only need to view feeds when the software sends an alarm—but even that burden exceeds available staff. The tremendous volume of stations that would have to be covered exacerbates the situation, adds Greg Hull, a security expert at APTA.

Another problem is that underground stations present a tough environment for CCTV. In places like the New York City subway system, the old infrastructure makes wiring and networking difficult. Other problems include cold, grime, and low light.

Smart CCTV software is getting a close look from railroads such as Canadian Pacific Railway and CSX, however. Blauser says that he has seen freight railroads adding CCTV to switching areas and other sensitive sites. But even if the technology were to work perfectly, says Livingstone, you still “need a response effort.” Responding to a problem 200 miles away would require a helicopter, he says, and “they won’t pay for that.”

Bio/chem detectors. Even before 9-11, the Washington, D.C., Metro served as a test bed for detection of toxic substances, says Millar. Its Metro system now uses the tested sensors, which were developed by Sandia National Laboratories.

Other transit agencies are starting to follow suit, says Safir, noting that chemical and radiological detectors have been found to work better than detectors of biological agents. APTA’s Hull notes that Boston now has a detection system online. The system, also from Sandia, takes air samples every few minutes, and Sandia officials say that the detectors are sensitive enough to identify trace amounts of chemical agents, toxic chemicals, and biotoxins.

The fiscal year 2005 White House budget allots $47 million to adding sensors “in the top threat cities and at high-value targets such as stadiums and transit systems to increase the chances of detecting the release of biological pathogens.” The budget also includes $31 million to develop the next generation of biological sensors.

To put those amounts in context, the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) recently asked Congress for $20 million to install chemical sensors in 15 underground stations. Extrapolating those costs to WMATA’s 47 underground stations yields a total of almost $63 million (of course, price per unit might well  drop for bigger orders), and that does not include biological or radiological detectors. New York’s subway itself has about 280 underground stations.

Intrusion detection. Subway and commuter-rail systems are also moving towards intrusion detection, infrared and otherwise, at the portals of tunnels, APTA’s Hull says. Intrusion detection is also being increasingly integrated with CCTV and access control, notes ADT’s Einsig.

Cargo inspection. Vehicle and Cargo Inspection Systems (VACIS) units that can automatically scan entire railcars have been installed at some ports on the U.S. borders with Canada and Mexico. As the AAR’s Hamberger explained to Congress, trains have to pass through stationary gamma-ray scanners one car at a time for screening.

“Inspectors examine scanned images of railcars for contraband, potential terrorists, or terrorist weapons without opening them and potentially endangering lives,” he testified.

That’s the advantage. The downside is the cost: These scanners, made by SAIC International, are expensive, running up to $1 million per unit.

Whether any of these technologies will become widely implemented is unclear. As Jeff Warsh notes, the use of advanced technology by transit systems is “extremely limited. Everyone is as capital-strapped now as they were pre-9-11.” Capital expenditures, he points out, are still going toward contractual obligations entered into before September 11. “New needs are competing with old obligations.”

It remains to be seen whether the rail industry will get the federal dollars and the public support that it would take to truly ensure that everything keeps working on the railroad.

Michael A. Gips is a senior editor at Security Management magazine.