French railways security can hardly match that of airports in spite of heightened worries following the failed terrorist attack on an Amsterdam-to-Paris train, industry experts and the authorities say.
In the incident Aug. 21 on a high-speed train operated by Thalys, a 25-year-old Moroccan citizen armed with a Kalashnikov and other guns was overpowered by passengers before he could shoot.
While the French rail operator will increase random luggage checks on board trains, it is unthinkable to introduce the kind of security measures routinely applied to air travel, Transport Minister Alain Vidalies Told Europe 1 radio Monday. That’s partly because of the greater numbers of people riding trains, and partly because of the nature of train travel, he said.
“You have over 2 billion travelers on trains and 140 million on planes,” Vidalies said. “Obvious security solutions can’t be transposed” or “it would take years to implement,” he said.
Trains are a soft target. Thousands of trains a day go to stations in cities where there aren’t even ticket offices or barriers.
For the moment, both government and security authorities are screening access and movements in railway stations as they seek potential ways to step up security.
Given past experience, advanced knowledge of planned attacks and heightened vigilance seems the best protection against train attacks. Solutions such as airport-style security seem so far too expensive.
Putting gates before train entrances would require 20 times the investment made for airplanes and airports, the chief executive of France’s SNCF railway operator, Guillaume Pepy, said Monday on BFM TV.
“100 million passengers cost 1 billion euros on security measures. It would be totally impossible economically to apply airports measures to railway transportation,” said Christophe Naudin, a security expert who taught French police, said.
Biometric identity checks to board trains and random luggage checks seemed reasonable, he said.
The Eurostar connecting London to the European continent is the only train that has airport-style security. Because Britain is not part of the so-called Schengen group of countries including France and Belgium that have relaxed border controls, passengers traveling to or from London must arrive early, pass immigration officials, and be subject to searches while their luggage is screened.
Identity checks are not required for boardings on trains or planes within Europe’s Schengen area, which includes 26 countries.
“The problem with Schengen is that either you accept it, or you re-create national orders,” Vidalies said today.
“It would be madness” to try and reproduce airport-type security throughout train systems, said Christian Wolmar, a British railway historian and politician. To be effective, it would have to be done at every single place trains stop, and at great cost, he said.
“Train travel is dependent on trust,” he said. “In the same way, if someone wanted to attack a busy motorway, there’s no way you can stop that.”
The most notable terrorists on trains occurred a decade ago, in both the U.K. and in Spain.
Suicide attacks on underground trains in central London during the morning rush of July 7, 2005, with subsequent related attack on a bus claimed 52 victims. In that instance, three suicide bombers set off explosions on underground trains and an hour later a fourth bomber set off a device on bus. The attack was the most deadly in the U.K. since the World War II.
In Spain, in 2004, North African immigrants linked to al- Qaeda detonated a series of bombs on rush-hour trains three days before general elections, killing more than 190 people in the country’s most lethal terrorist attack. In response, luggage- screening on some routes was implemented.
Thalys, operator of the train between Amsterdam and Paris, has also increased “vigilance” on trains since the accident, though spokeswomen Eva Mertens in a telephone interview over the weekend declined to offer details, and said it was ultimately up to national authorities to decide on security measures.
France deployed over 30,000 police and soldiers across the country to protect 5,000 sensitive sites including train stations, authorities said. Gare du Nord, where the Thalys trains from Germany and the Netherlands arrive and depart, is the world’s third biggest station in terms of passengers.
–With assistance from Mark Deen in Paris.
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