Railway stations lack airport-style security checks

 Police officers stand on the platform at the Zuid-Midi railway station in Brussels, on Aug 22, 2015.
Police officers stand on the platform at the Zuid-Midi railway station in Brussels, on Aug 22, 2015.PHOTO: AFP

PARIS • Since the 9/11 terror attacks, airports around the world have implemented tougher security checks for travellers, but the foiled attack on a packed high- speed train in Europe raises questions over whether railway stations should also follow suit.

The suspected gunman, named as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, boarded the Amsterdam-Paris express in Brussels last Friday with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter, investigators say.

In the wake of the episode, Belgium said it would increase baggage checks and patrols on high-speed trains.

And France said its state-run rail firm, the SNCF, would introduce an emergency hotline to report "abnormal situations".

MISSION IMPOSSIBLE

Airplanes leave from a specific place - you can build a security apparatus around it. It's just not possible to do that with trains. You would have to do that at every station.

MR RAFFAELLO PANTUCCI, of the Royal United Services Institute in London

In the United States, 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. Most smaller stations, however, lack any type of armed presence or security screening.

Experts say applying airport-style security to railway stations is almost impossible.

"The idea of extending the airport system to railway stations today isn't something that I can call realistic," SNCF head Guillaume Pepy said. "There's a choice - you either have comprehensive security or low (transport) efficiency."

Railway hubs were built in the 19th and 20th centuries, when today's types of terror threats were inconceivable.

As a result, main stations are designed to have a maximum free flow of people on and off trains, with sometimes dozens of departures or arrivals during peak periods. They are served by a network of smaller stations - 3,000 of them in France alone.

"Airplanes leave from a specific place - you can build a security apparatus around it," said Mr Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute in London.

"It's just not possible to do that with trains. You would have to do that at every station."

Retrofitting the railway network - nationally and internationally - so that it meets airport-style criteria would be astronomically costly, said Mr Marc Ivaldi at the IDEI research institute in Toulouse, south-western France.

In the absence of regular station screening, greater security would mean having to rely on high-visibility patrols, spot checks, enrolling the public in campaigns for greater vigilance, installing video surveillance cameras and beefing up coordination between police and railway security.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 24, 2015, with the headline 'Railway stations lack airport-style security checks'. Print Edition | Subscribe