U.S. security officials say passenger trains are secure

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson speaks along with TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger, 2nd right, at a news conference on security for the U.S. rail system, at Union Station in Washington, Thursday, September 3, 2015. (AP Photo/Molly Riley)
In this handout photo, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson walks to board an Acela train at Union Station in D.C. Thursday to travel to New Jersey. Johnson says he frequently rides Amtrak and assured the traveling public that it is safe to ride the rails this Labor Day holiday weekend. (Courtesy Department of Homeland Security)

WASHINGTON — In the wake of the France train terror attack in late August, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Amtrak and local police officials went to Union Station Thursday to reassure travelers they are safe using the nation’s passenger rail system.

Ahead of the Labor Day weekend travel rush, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, Transportation Security Administrator Peter Neffenger and Amtrak Chief of Police Polly Hanson. announced that Operation Railsafe has been activated to put potentially nervous passengers at ease.

“I have great confidence in the safety of rail travel. I am a big fan of rail travel. It is my favorite way to go home to New Jersey, and I’m boarding the Acela right after this news conference to do that,” Johnson said.

The concern about security has grown since a Moroccan man with ties to the Islamic State and the Levant, known as ISIL, opened fire with an automatic rifle on Aug. 21 aboard a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris. Five people were injured in the attack French police say was inspired by ISIL although the gunman claimed the motivation was robbery due to hunger.

Four passengers including three Americans overpowered the attacker, stopping what authorities fear could have been a massacre of dozens of passengers.

Johnson pointed out that Operation Railsafe was not created in response to the attack said. “This particular operation has been going on for a couple of years now, so what we’re doing today is not new.”

Hanson said, “Amtrak police, NYPD and TSA started Operation Railsafe in 2010 and there have been 50 Railsafes in 42 states the District of Columbia and Vancouver Canada involving over 265 agencies and over 1600 law enforcement members since then.”

The program employs random searches and Visible Intermodal Prevention and Response teams, which include air marshals, behavior detection officers and trained dogs to mitigate the threat of terrorist attacks and calm possibly nervous passengers.

According to the American Public Transit Association, Amtrak moves 31.6 million over 21,300 route miles through 500 stations each year. APTA data also indicates that local rail transportation moves 4.9 billion people through 3,291 stations over 12,193 route miles.

TSA Administrator Peter Neffenger suggested that securing such a big system is easier said than done.

“In the surface mode, particularly passenger and commuter rail, that’s a much complex and dynamic environment. It’s a very open environment, with a lot of access points and requires a great deal of with effort with federal, state, local and private sector partners to secure that,” said Neffenger.

The large and open nature of the U.S. passenger rail system has generated security concerns since the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. The Council on Foreign Relations published a report in 2007 raising concerns about security risks on passenger trains. The report pointed out that the size of the U.S. passenger rail system and growing volume of passengers was a significant risk.

That report and a foiled 2009 al-Qaida plot to launch suicide attacks on the New York City subway system initiated a U.S. government effort to better secure the passenger rail system.

Amtrak Police encourages anyone who notices something suspicious or unusual to speak directly with its on-duty officers, station personnel, train crew members, or to call its 24-hour call center at-1-800-331-0008 or 911 to report it immediately.

J.J. Green

JJ Green is WTOP's National Security Correspondent. He reports daily on security, intelligence, foreign policy, terrorism and cyber developments, and provides regular on-air and online analysis. He is also the host of two podcasts: Target USA and Colors: A Dialogue on Race in America.

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