Mumbai Train Attack: Can It Happen Here?

As authorities and pundits debate a new paradigm of terrorism after the three-day siege of Mumbai in November, security measures here in the U.S. at so-called soft targets, namely train stations, are being ramped up.

But in the wake of disclosures of unpreparedness in Mumbai, is the nation's passenger rail system ready for an attack similar to the one that struck a Mumbai train station, which was overtaken by highly trained, armed militants? Amtrak spokesperson Cliff Cole told MeetingNews that while "there is no specific threat to Amtrak," security staff around the country remains vigilant after a Thanksgiving-holiday threat warning that put officials on high alert.

Cole added that Amtrak has recently strengthened its security by deploying specialized teams that conduct random passenger and baggage checks. These teams, which include Amtrak Police—the rail carrier's own law enforcement agency—as well as counterterrorism agents and canine units, also patrol and inspect trains and station platforms.

Cole stressed that the new initiative was not a response to any specific threat, but was rather a part of Amtrak's ongoing security enhancements. The measures were developed in partnership with federal, state, and local law enforcement personnel, and reflect best practices by the New York City Subway and other high-volume rail systems around the world.

The Port Authority of New York & New Jersey, which is responsible for all metropolitan New York airports, tunnels, and bridges, as well as the interstate bus terminal near Times Square, said it tightened security during the holiday season and will continue to be on special alert, although it did not offer specifics.

Passenger rail security in the U.S. has been much debated in Congress, especially after the 2004 bombing of Madrid's subway. Senator John McCain and others have called for more measures, stating that it is only a matter of time before a similar attack occurs here. However, there remains an air of unpreparedness against the type of attack that occurred in Mumbai.

"I don't think you can ever prepare for such an event," said Charlie LeBlanc, president of Houston-based ASI Group, a global risk management company. "If you want to go from containment to preventative measures, there's no foolproof way of stopping something like this."

LeBlanc said current measures being taken are "probably as good as they could be," but that the paradigm-changing Mumbai attack, in which terrorists shot at civilians in a confined area like a hotel lobby or train station, is one that can't be prevented, only contained.

"What has to be the response is to try and limit the impact, which means more ground personnel—security forces, police—which would take down a terrorist before he could do more damage," LeBlanc said.

Originally published Jan. 5, 2009