This month, Amtrak officials announced that they
were stepping up security, including random searches of passenger carry-on bags,
more officers patrolling platforms and trains, and bomb-sniffing dogs. That
Amtrak would want to increase security should come as no surprise given that
the railway system was the target of terrorist attacks in Madrid in 2004, London
in 2005, and Mumbai in 2006. Indeed, one might even ask why it's taken Amtrak
so long to introduce increased security measures to protect against a similar
fate in the United States. According to Amtrak president and CEO Alex Kummant,
"These new procedures will strengthen Amtrak's overall security, and they
are vital in our efforts to deter, detect, and prevent a terrorist incident
on the rail system."
But heightened security procedures do not necessarily translate into being
safer and more secure. Will the benefits outweigh the new burdens?
Apparently, Amtrak's decision to conduct random searches is based on the New
York City subway random search program. Unfortunately, simple analysis shows
that the New York City program is a flawed design that requires a relatively
high manpower effort to yield a relatively
low level of effectiveness. That, however, does not seem to concern Amtrak
officials, who seem to like the New York City program because it has held up
in court challenges.
One thing the Amtrak and New York City random search programs have in common
is that they both allow people to refuse a search and walk away. In New York
City, if that person was a would-be terrorist, he or she could simply try to
gain access to the same subway station via a different entrance (if there is
one), which may or may not be subject to search, or go to a different subway
station knowing that the NYPD does not have enough manpower to conduct searches
at all of New York's 468 subway stations. On Amtrak, any passenger refusing
a search is not allowed to board the train and has their ticket refunded. One
question is how easy it would be for that person to simply buy another ticket
and board a different train (presumably, a terrorist would be indifferent to
which train they were on). It might be easy enough to identify that person if
they bought another ticket from a station agent (which requires showing identification).
But no ID is required to purchase a ticket from a self-serve kiosk (and a would-be
terrorist might have multiple credit cards with different names for making such
Does refusing a search automatically make someone suspect, and does Amtrak
then keep track of that person to ensure that they don't board another train?
Many Amtrak stations have multiple platforms (each with their own access) so
it would be at least possible to board a different train, especially if searches
are not being conducted on all platforms. (Of course, if the answer is "yes"
to the above questions, that raises the larger issue whether refusing a search
should automatically make one suspect and subject to tracking. Indeed, would
refusing a search put you on some sort of terrorist watch list or a "no-ride"
list similar to the no-fly list?)
And nothing would prevent that person from trying to get on another train on
another day. Moreover, the random search program would not prevent a terrorist
from detonating a bomb while standing in line (or even in the waiting area of
a terminal, such as Grand Central in Manhattan or Union Station in Washington,
D.C.). Just as it is reasonable to assume that terrorists would be indifferent
to which train they were on, it is also reasonable to assume that the target
of the attack does not have to be the train itself but simply a large enough
crowd of people.
Also worth considering is that a terrorist attack might consist of several
bombers (indeed, this seems likely given the other train bombings). Thus, even
if a random search stopped one would-be bomber (obviously, a good thing), what
are the odds that all the bombers would be stopped by the same random search?
As is the case with many other post-9/11 security measures, there is no real
analysis to demonstrate the efficacy and cost-effectiveness of Amtrak's random
search program. Instead, there is simply assertion. According to Amtrak's CEO
Kummant, "This is just the correct step to take."
But if we're worried about bombers, wouldn't it make more sense to use the
manpower and money for the random search program on more officers with bomb-sniffing
dogs patrolling platforms and perhaps even trains, rather than randomly searching
passengers in the hope that Amtrak security guesses right about which people
Finally, there is this paradox to ponder. Administration officials often tout
the fact that the United States has not (thankfully) been attacked since 9/11
as evidence that their Homeland Security policies and programs are correct.
Indeed, last September, Department of Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff
told the House Committee on Homeland Security: "On Sept. 11, 2001, no one
could have predicted the passage of six years without further attacks on our
homeland. By any measure, this is a remarkable achievement. It is the result
of our comprehensive efforts to secure our safety." And he asserted that
we were "unequivocally safer." So, by Chertoff's logic, if Amtrak
has not been the target of a terrorist attack, and not being attacked
is evidence that we are safer, doesn't that suggest that Amtrak's prior security
measures (sporadic identification checks by train conductors) were working?
Then why introduce more intrusive measures that aren't demonstrably more effective?