All kinds of criminals, not just terrorists, have a free run of trains, data show

Four hours after two explosive devices went off on the Bangalore-Guwahati Express in Chennai on Thursday, the national capital’s iconic Old Delhi station was on red alert, or so television channels reported.

Passengers shoved their way, with their luggage, through a door-frame metal-detector, which beeped in protest uselessly. The police were putting up a brave show of searching some passengers’ bags, but it was a Sisyphean task: for every one held up, hundreds more passed by.

The bombing of the train has once again underlined that India’s economic lifeline — its railway system — is a security nightmare. The bad news is: there isn’t much that can be done.

India’s Railway Protection Force, mandated to protect trains along with the State government-controlled Government Reserve Police, has thrown its hands up. “Look,” one officer told The Hindu, “there are more than 13 million passengers transiting railway stations every day. How on earth do you search all their luggage, and frisk all of them?”

Government data show that cases of on-train robbery have grown from 382 in 2003 to 1,096 in 2013, while murders have gone up from 246 to 270 — suggesting all kinds of criminals, not just terrorists, have a free run of trains.

International problem

It isn’t only India which faces problems protecting its trains. In December, a suicide-bomber killed 16 people at the railway station in Russia’s Sochi, the latest in a long string of attacks. In 2004, an attack on trains in Madrid killed 191 and injured over 1,800 — numbers rivalling the 2006 bombings in Mumbai. London saw suicide bombings in 2005, killing 52 commuters and injuring over 400.

Last year, the police in Canada charged Tunisian national Chiheb Esseghaier, an industrial biotechnologist, and Palestinian Raed Jaser, with conspiring to derail a high-speed train between Toronto’s Union Station and New York City, 550 kilometres to its south-east. Large parts of the track are unmonitored by closed circuit television, making such an attack easy to execute.

In 2009, the United States’ Government Accountability Office published a review of railway security measures. The study noted that the “the number of riders passing through a subway system — especially during peak hours — make the sustained use of some security measures, such as airport style passenger screening checkpoints, difficult”.

Though many operators in the United States have made investments in passenger and baggage screening operations, the costs are daunting. New research may change that — for example, systems capable of detecting weapons and explosives as passengers pass through turnstiles — but only in the distant future.

Tough challenge

Experts agree the answer is stopping terrorists before they reach the stage of executing an attack. In the Canadian case, the attack was pre-empted because intelligence services in that country and the United States were able to infiltrate the plot early on. “Effective offensive police and intelligence work targeting terrorists is best defence,” says Ajai Sahni, the Director of the Institute of Conflict Management in New Delhi.

It is also important to keep some perspective on the risks posed by terrorism to the Indian rail passengers. In 2013, a year when the rail system saw no terrorism-related fatalities, 103 passengers were reported killed in five major accidents.

In 2010, the year of the bombing of the Gyaneshwari Express by Maoists, 117 died because of accidents. In most years, accidents claim far more lives than terrorism — and railway passengers are far safer than road commuters.

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