- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2006

In the wake of the September 11 attacks, many people asked with great urgency: Why didn’t someone connect the dots? Why didn’t we see the attacks coming? And, how do we prevent other attacks?

The response was a classic example of protecting against the last threat and not “thinking outside the box” about that next threat. We have flung ourselves headlong into creating a safer air traffic system and so far it has been working. Another threat, which has reared its ugly and deadly head in Madrid, London, Chechnya and India, is the threat to the railroads.

We received threats against our railroads, and the major commuter railroads and subway systems were blanketed by police. Nothing happened, and that is a good thing. However, the bigger threat to our nation’s railroads comes not from the potential to repeat those attacks on passenger rail around the world, but upon railroad infrastructure itself, which is primarily freight railroad in the United States.

Except along the Northeast Corridor from Boston to Washington, Amtrak runs on the tracks of the various freight railroads, as do most commuter railroads. A network of nearly 200,000 miles of railroad stretches across America with thousands upon thousands of switches, turnouts, crossovers, bridges, trestles, tunnels and hundreds of railroad yards and thousands upon thousands of railcars and locomotives.

All are vulnerable to attack and sabotage and given al Qaeda’s penchant for multiple, simultaneous attacks, any such attacks against the freight railroad infrastructure or the targeting of hazardous commodities in transit could spell disastrous consequences for local communities across the nation and could deliver a crippling blow to our economy. In addition, such attacks are easy and cheap to carry out.

Are we prepared to defend against such attacks? Sadly, the answer is a resounding “no.” While the British Transport Police in Great Britain fields more than 3,500 officers to protect the rail system in that country, there are fewer than 1,400 railroad police officers in the United States, down from more than 4,000 20 years ago. Even since September 11, the freight railroads have continued to trim their police departments. Instead of fielding uniformed officers 24/7 across their systems, the freight railroads rely on “special agents” who are assigned 200 to 700 miles of railroad to protect. There are only a handful of marked railroad police cars across the United States.

Each year in the United States about 500 persons are killed while trespassing on railroad property and another 500 or so are injured. That is indicative of just how open and vulnerable our railroads are. Most of the 200,000 miles of railroad are not fenced either. For the most part, railroads operate on the honor system. That could be virtually stopped by vastly increasing the number of railroad police officers, making them much more visible and available to prevent trespassing and to protect railroad property. By eliminating casual trespassers, those intent upon doing harm will be stopped. Additionally, good, specially designed fences would go a great way in keeping trespassers off railroad property and prevent them from being killed or injured and protect railroad property from theft, vandalism and sabotage.

Major railroad accidents where hazardous materials have spilled have killed people in communities along the railroads and have led to a number of major evacuations of those who live near the railroads. What is the current railroad response to these threats? Simply this: Eventually compensate those dislocated and injured and the families of those killed. The assumption one can make is that paying claims must be cheaper than paying for cops, fences and other protective measures. That is unacceptable.

The only real answer is to stop giving lip service to protection and prevention and to fence strategic railroad property and drastically increase the number of sworn railroad police officers across the nation.

The railroads, through Operation Lifesaver, acknowledge that the three “E’s,” engineering, education and enforcement, are essential in protecting railroad property, the passengers and freight they carry and the communities through which they travel. But they have failed to acknowledge the fourth “E,” enabling — that is, actually putting their money where their mouths are and making protection of our nation’s railroads a reality.

In this post-September 11 world we must connect the dots. Nothing less is acceptable. Our lives depend upon it.

Kevin M. Lynch of New York is a former captain of police for the Conrail Police Department and a consultant on railroad police practices. He also is an expert witness in railroad injury and death cases.

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