Why securing Europe’s railways against terrorism shouldn’t be attempted

So apparently this morning Ségolène Royal, Minister of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy, has announced that security gates will be built to access Thalys trains:

De Telegraaf interprets this as meaning bag scanners, going further than La Voix du Nord does (although their story also says the gates (portiques) will be installed in Köln, Brussels and Amsterdam as well). Royal also underlined that the international component of this is important.

Right. Let’s get a few things clear.

First, are international high trains per se any more dangerous than any other sort of trains? OK, there was one failed attack in a Thalys train, but national rail routes are also susceptible to both transport terrorists (Brussels-Verviers might well have done for example) and as a place to attack (the Madrid 2004 bombings were local commuter trains). If you secure Thalys, why not national TGVs? If TGVs, why not Intercités? If Intercités, why not TERs, RERs, Metros as well? Should cross-border regional trains be treated the same way – Lille-Tournai for example?

Second, the only networks that are indeed ‘secure’ in Europe are essentially networks that are separate from the rest of the railway – Eurostar’s regular services have dedicated platforms at all the stations they serve, as do Renfe’s high speed trains as they run on different gauge track to the rest of the Spanish network. Try separating Thalys or DB ICEs from the rest of those railways’ traffic – impossible. In Bruxelles Midi or Köln Hbf a Thalys train is followed on the same platform by a local train to Schaerbeek or a RegionalExpress to Hamm – are all those other passengers to be checked as well? Or are high speed trains going to all be given dedicated platforms at stations already operating at capacity? To secure Thalys alone, the following stations would need to be covered: Paris Nord, Lille Europe, Bruxelles Midi, Antwerpen Centraal, Rotterdam Centraal, Schipol Airport, Amsterdam Centraal, Liège Guillemins, Aachen Hbf, Köln Hbf, Düsseldorf Hbf, Düsseldorf Flughafen, Duisburg Hbf, Essen Hbf, Dortmund Hbf – did Royal think of all of those? And if she did not, then why check at some stations only? That’s not security, it is just inconvenience – see the temporary checks in Bruxelles-Midi as an example.

Third, what ‘security’ should be designed in? If La Voix du Nord is correct, and only ticket gates are to be installed, then is that really improving security that much? OK, it gives access to the train only to someone holding a ticket, but that is just a financial disincentive. If instead bag scanners and ID checks are to happen then that slows down passenger flow, requires passengers to check in, and massively increases costs. Also in stations with little space (Köln Hbf, or at the head of platforms of Paris Nord for example) you create bunches of waiting passengers that themselves are a potential terrorist target before boarding.

[UPDATE – 30.11.2015, 1330]
My point about bunches of passengers is precisely what’s happening – pic today from Gare du Nord, Paris

Fourth, I worry about where this whole thing takes us – we should not be in a situation in Europe where we fear taking a train (whether high speed or not), a bus or a tram. If it is not our transport network that is a target, then it will be a supermarket or a shopping centre, or a concert venue, restaurant and sport stadium as it was in Paris. An attack by an albeit well organised bunch of terrorists in Paris must not force us to behave as if we are in a security state.

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  1. Théophile

    Vidberg cartoonist did a very good point for security in stations : http://vidberg.blog.lemonde.fr/2015/08/25/faut-il-installer-des-portiques-de-securite-dans-les-gares/

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  3. Marius Ooms

    You read my thoughts! Former frequent Thalys traveller was expecting this after Thalys attack. Just copying RENFE totally in appropriately. Fare dodging may decline at a very high cost indeed!