How can cities protect metro systems from terrorism?

Wreaths of flowers on the ground near the Maalbeek subway station in Brussels after a 2016 terrorist attack. Image: Getty.

Since the start of the millennium, hundreds of passengers have been killed and thousands injured by bombings on metro rail systems. These systems are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks using improvised explosive devices (IEDs), a weakness which has been exploited by more than 150 terrorist organisations – ranging from ultra-left extremists to religious fanatics – to target commuters in 64 different countries over the past four decades.

Madrid’s Cercanias commuter train system was hit in 2004, London’s Underground in 2005, Mumbai’s suburban rail network in 2008 and Moscow’s metro in 2010. More recently, bombings took place in Brussels in 2016 and again on the London Underground at Parsons’ Green Station in September 2017.

There are certain factors which make metro rail systems particularly vulnerable to attacks like these – but there are also several measures that authorities can take to make them safer.

Security measures are weak at most train stations – and there’s a high concentration of people. This makes them prime targets for terrorists looking to carry out mass casualty attacks using IEDs. IEDs have been a weapon of choice for three main reasons: they’re easy to acquire, there’s a low risk of detection and the potential impact is huge.

IEDs are relatively inexpensive to build, and the internet has emerged as a valuable source for terrorists to share detailed instructions on how to assemble a wide range of bombs. Once put together, IEDs can be smuggled onto packed commuter trains to cause mass casualties.

Installing airport-style security checks at train stations could prevent attackers armed with IEDs from entering. But this presents obvious difficulties: metro rail systems are designed to be used by millions of passengers every day. People would resent long waits in security queues multiple times a day to complete their commute.

Mad rush, Manila. Image: FotoGrazio/Flickr/creative commons.

Owing to their function, metro rail projects are conceived as open architecture systems. This means that, in the design phase, emphasis is placed on facilitating the movement of passengers. Every care is taken to minimise the presence of bottlenecks (other than those created by shops and fare collection gates) that can inhibit movement, cause delays and create safety concerns, brought about by overcrowding. This open design makes it easier for terrorists to enter, plant explosive devices hidden in bags or backpacks and make their escape afterwards.

Metro rail systems are also vulnerable because of the inherent predictability in the way they operate. It is easy for terrorists to work out when trains are most crowded, in order to cause a large number of casualties. This may explain why the attacks on the London Underground in 2005 and 2017 both took place during the rush hour.


A stronger response

The response of security agencies to this threat has varied around the world. In London, the emphasis is on covert measures. Police rely on intelligence-led operations to disrupt plots at the planning stage, while a vast network of CCTV cameras is used for surveillance to identify suspicious behaviour.

At the other end of the spectrum, security personnel in Beijing, Delhi and Moscow scan every bag for explosives and pat down every passenger before they can start their commute. This approach comes at a cost, as waiting times in security queues can stretch up to 20 minutes during the rush hour.

Across the world, it’s becoming increasingly common for railway companies and police to rely on ordinary railway employees such as train drivers, station managers and platform managers to perform a security role by identifying suspicious objects and individuals and reporting them to authorities.

Training railway staff in a security role can lead to “target hardening”: in other words, it increases the effort required on part of terrorists to attack metro rail systems and raising their chances of getting caught. The challenge for rail companies has been that the security role creates an additional burden for staff, which could lead to errors in both the security checks and their conventional role.

Innovative technology and design solutions are also being tested, to better secure metro rail systems against terrorist attacks. For example, provisions are made at the design stage of stations to include potential checkpoints, where baggage scanners can be installed to check passengers when police receive specific warnings.

The ConversationThere are nearly 200 operational metro rail systems worldwide – and new ones are under construction at a rapid pace . They provide a fast, affordable and environmentally friendly means of transport to large sections of population and have become an essential feature of cities across the world. Now, security agencies, railway operators and engineering companies must come together to protect these systems – and the people who use them – from the threat of terrorism.

Kartikeya Tripathi, Teaching Fellow, Security and Crime Science, UCL and Hervé Borrion, Associate Professor in Security and Crime Science, UCL.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

 
 
 
 

“You need to leave home three hours in advance”: On the reality of commuting in Beijing

Just another day on the Beijing Subway. Image: Getty.

Sihui Station. One of the busiest subway station in central Beijing.

A train comes. People all stop checking their cellphones, holding tight to their bags or briefcases and waiting for the door to open. The doors open. The game on.

The people standing at the front of the lines rush into the carriage. To be more precise, they are pushed into the carriages by the people standing behind them. Some of them should have decided to wait for the next train, but they are somehow forced to get on the train by the squeezing crowds. Sometimes, there are women yelling at others to stop pushing.

The carriages are full of people within seconds, with only half of the waiting people able to get on. The other half just have to wait for the next train. The same scene repeats and repeats, lasting for 5 hours every day, from 5 p.m. to 10 p.m.

The Beijing Subway: the Batong line extends line 1 to the eastern suburbs. Image: Ran/Hat600/Wikimedia Commons.

This is the adventure that Beijing commuters have to take on every day. It is, honestly, insane. Crowded stations, long waiting lines, passengers pouring into the carriages – this is the nightmare faced by all the Beijing workers taking this line to go and back from work. There is a saying in my university that it takes great courage to take subways during rush hours. And it does.

Batong Line, the one connecting central Beijing and the eastern residential areas, is one of the busiest subway lines in Beijing, delivering more than 200,000 commuters every day. The picture below is of its terminus Sihui station during evening rush hour.

Sihui station. Image: author provided.

Mrs.Hou is a 31 years old woman who lives in Tongzhou, a main residential district of Beijing. She has to take Batong Line every day to go to work. “If you want to get to work on time, you need to leave home three hours in advance to make sure that you are able to squeeze into the subway,” she says. “Sometimes I even have to take the opposite line first to avoid those throngs in the stations near the residential areas. I never expect that I would get a seat – I just want to get into the carriages, that’s all.”

Miss.Li, a 16 years old high school student, takes the subway to school every day. “Sometimes during the morning, I have to wait at the subway station for half an hour, because I’m unable to squeeze into any carriage. That’s why I am always late for school. There is no space, no space at all. Once my body was in the carriage, but my hair was outside.”


Mr.Han, a commuter, told me, “I don’t need to worry about braking or falling. This would not happen. After all, there is no space to fall.”

In the picture, taken from the stairs overlooking the platform, you can see that crowds have occupied the waiting areas for the opposite platform. Though there is a train every three minutes during the peak hours, the number of people waiting on the platform never seems to change: as throngs of commuters hustling into the carriages, other throngs pour onto the platform, to anxiously wait. Most of them are using their cellphones to kill time or listen to music. The platform is silent, even though hundreds of people are gathering at the station, as if they are gathering their energy to win the oncoming battle. This is probably the strangest thing about it: that so many people could occupy a specific place at the same time, and it could be that silent.

Although the government has made every effort to address the problem – for instance, shortening the interval between trains – it could not meet the demand. More than 200,000 extra people pouring into Beijing every day from all over China and the world. The stress on public transport in China is a big issue – but it’s hard to deny the authorities are doing well in delivering more than 20m residents to their destinations every day.

Siyi Liu is a Chinese exchange student, currently studying journalism at Bath Spa University.