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October 7, 2015updated 10 Nov 2017 10:26am

The rail security debate: thwarted attack reveals network vulnerability

The attempted attack on a high-speed passenger train in August proved a sobering wake-up call for EU leaders, prompting an intense debate on railway security in Europe. But while a knee-jerk reaction from ministers delivered short-term measures across France and Belgium, legislators continue to shy away from enacting any long-term security plans.

By Eva Grey

On 21 August 2015, a man boarded a high-speed train travelling between Amsterdam and Paris armed with a Kalashnikov rifle, an automatic pistol, a bottle of petrol and a box-cutter.

The assailant opened fire but was quickly subdued by passengers, two of whom were US soldiers, who managed to prevent the attack from becoming deadly.

The ease with which the gunman managed to board the Thalys train has reignited a heated debate about the levels of security across European railways.

Transport Security Expo (Transec), an annual event bringing together global leaders to discuss the threat faced by transportation networks, highlighted in a blog post following the incident that “unlike air travel, commuter trains and stations are uniquely exposed to security threats as soft targets requiring minimal security checks.” According to their figures, investment in airport security is set to reach $12.67bn by 2023, while a co-ordinated, robust approach to railway vulnerability is still absent at EU level.

“Terrorism knows no borders,” said Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos in the wake of the August attack. “We must act together by enhancing transnational and European cooperation.”

But despite the calls for swift action, critics argue that although rail security has been on the agenda for several years, little to no concrete action has been taken so far.



Recent statistics reveal that four of the top ten UK crime hot spots are major railway stations.


“The attack on rail is something that we’ve been waving a red flag about for three years,” says Brooks Tigner, editor and chief policy analyst at Security Europe, a Brussels-based organisation which provides in-depth analysis on EU and NATO civil security policy developments.

“They don’t yet know what to do about train security and whether it should be tackled at EU level or not. The [European] Commission is very frustrated in the rail area and they have been for a long time, hearing that we need more of a coherent EU-level rail transport policy which includes security, but it’s been resisted left and right by the Member States,” he says.

The public outcry over the thwarted attack forced French and Belgian leaders to tighten security, while a cohort of EU-funded rail security projects have been researching alternative solutions to tackle the growing threat of terrorist attacks. But are the current provisions enough to safeguard passengers, and what more can be done to ensure a uniform level of protection across EU territory?

Leaders discuss railway security at emergency meetings

A week after the attack, an urgent European Transport and Home Affairs Ministerial meeting was called on 29 August. Ministers from France, Belgium, Britain, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Spain and Switzerland, as well as EU’s top transport and interior affairs officials, gathered in Paris to discuss an immediate course of action and to “identify potential additional security measures at national and at European level”, according to a European Commission press release.

In a joint statement signed by all Member States, leaders promised to reinforce passenger identity inspections and luggage control “where appropriate”, as well as increase law enforcement patrols aboard trains. France’s rail firm SNCF announced the introduction of a national “emergency hotline” for passengers to flag up “abnormal situations”.

The statement also called for “using new technologies to reinforce security in rail transport”, increasing data and information exchanges between countries and using the Schengen Information System (SIS) to its full potential. The possibility of introducing nominative train tickets was also taken into consideration, subject to further evaluation.

However, ministers stopped short of supporting ‘airport-style’ security for railway stations, calling such measures “unrealistic”, given the high flow of passengers and huge cost of implementation. In a statement, Transport Commissioner Violeta Bulc warned that “we must not overreact” and that “security must be proportionate to the threat”.

“Ministers stopped short of supporting ‘airport-style’ security for railway stations, calling such measures “unrealistic””

Tigner, however, does not believe these measures are sufficient in protecting passengers in the face of an attack: “I think this is an immediate reaction,” he says. “They know there will be a panic, that the politicians will suddenly panic and put pressure on their public administrations, who will… set up these temporary checks, but wait two months and they will probably fade away or decrease in intensity and we will be back in the same old situation.”

A follow-up meeting of the Land Transport Security Expert Group (LANDSEC) was held in Brussels on 11 September, with the view of establishing a more tangible long-term security agenda. Transport experts from the 28 Member States brought forward their views, with some insisting that “security of transport is a national responsibility” and further maintaining that “the airline security model cannot be transposed to rail”.

Spain’s current security model, which employs airport-style scanners and checks at its Atocha Railroad Station, was also discussed. Spanish authorities adopted the model following the March 2004 terrorist attack on four of their high-speed commuter trains, which claimed 191 lives and left more than 1,800 injured.

Technology versus legislation: the answer to improved security

At a time when security is veering towards national sovereignty and an appropriate international approach is still highly ambiguous, another question surfaces from the ongoing debate: does the answer to safer railways lie in advanced technological equipment or in co-ordinated legislation and intelligence?

At the moment, EU railways lack both. A note dated 18 September from the Council of the European Union, published by independent watchdog Statewatch, brings attention to the fact that “today, no enabling provision exists which would allow the Commission to take… implementing measures with regard to railway security, similar as for aviation security.”

Tigner believes that, in the future, technology will play the bigger role in delivering railway security, due to the sheer number of passengers on the network. According to Eurostat, 387 billion passenger-kilometres were travelled on European networks in 2013, with more than 70% of this accounted for by the four largest EU Member States.



The spectre of cyber attacks has added a layer of risk to rail operations.


“However, it raises an interesting issue about intelligence: do we need a railway version of the PNR? I think we do,” Tigner says. PNR data is information collected by airlines that covers 19 fields of passenger information, such as travel dates and itinerary, ticket information, contact details and means of payment used. PNR legislation is currently being pushed in the EU Parliament to enable law enforcement authorities to collect and access personal data on passengers travelling on international flights. The possibility of introducing a rail version of the PNR was also brought up at the emergency ministerial meeting in Paris.

“I think the most significant thing they can do is come up with a rail PNR system,” Tigner says. “They need to link that with the SIS and they need to link that to the airline PNR system. They can only detect threat if all the PNR systems are connected.”

However, he highlights that the proposal “isn’t going anywhere for the moment”: at a briefing Tigner attended following the August attack, the Commission dismissed the issue, arguing that “the political temperature is not right” for discussing a rail version of the PNR at the moment.

“The first baby step would be to at least get everyone to do the same benchmarking for security,” he says.

Europe researches the answer via security-focused projects

The issue has not been entirely ignored. Under EU’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7), a number of security-focused research projects received approximately €51m between 2007 and 2013. Its successor, the ongoing Horizon 2020, includes a security budget of about €1.6bn.

One of the most significant amongst these projects was the recently closed SECUR-ED program worth €39m, which delivered mass transport security demonstrations across big and medium European cities, addressing everything “from minor offences to terrorism threats”.

An ongoing project is RESOLUTE, which will dedicate €3m between 2015 and 2018 to “increasing Europe’s resilience to crises and disasters”, both man-made threats and natural hazards, followed by CARONTE, a €1.3m scheme that aims to “provide answers to the question of what type of security-related projects should be planned in the future”.

“Because there is no strict legal obligation on the Consortium to commercialise their results, then the results don’t necessarily turn into products that can protect railways.”

“The problem with EU-funded security projects is that there’s no pressure or no legal obligation on the [European Research Infrastructure Consortium] to commercialise the results,” Tigner says.

“Since the IPR [International Property Rights] works with the Consortium, and not with the Commission that funds these projects, there’s no pressure to commercialise,” he explains. “It’s a long-term process of trying to re-shape the demand for security technologies in Europe, and because there is no strict legal obligation on the Consortium to commercialise their results, then the results don’t necessarily turn into products that can protect railways.”

So yes, it’s good that they are doing these research projects, but will they lead to new products on the market that rail operators can use? I’m not so sure.”

The next step in delivering passenger protection

Further talks on the issue are certainly on the agenda. Commissioner Violeta Bulc and Luxembourg Transport Minister François Bausch agreed to approach rail security at the next EU Transport Ministers meeting in Luxembourg on 6 October. The meeting is expected to determine whether there is a need for legislative action at the EU level.

However, Tigner is not so hopeful. “I’m not keeping my fingers crossed for any action this year, because it’s too soon,” he concludes. “The Commission has been rebuffed so often that it hasn’t really prepared a dossier on this. Even if there’s another attack, this will be a slow moving dossier in terms of producing a package of concrete measures.”

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