Trains are Indefensible

I remember as a kid watching “Lawrence of Arabia” where he led Arab raiding parties against the Turkish train lines in WW1.  Per this PBS article about Lawrence:

With the Ottoman army spread thinly across the empty vastness of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz Arabs found it relatively easy to strike and sabotage Turkish lines of communication and supply. With the Red Sea firmly in British hands, the Turks had no option but to use the Hejaz railway to move their men, supplies and munitions.  

Lawrence and the Arabs spent much of their two years on the road to Damascus destroying sections of the railway. Small units of men laid charges on the track. Then as the Turks defended the track, Lawrence’s men formed large moving columns capable of rapid hit-and-run operations. 

In the recent train crash in the East Coast there are discussions of a “projectile” hitting the train and distracting the conductor.  While this hasn’t been confirmed, it is relevant to consider how difficult it would be to secure train lines from attack or sabotage.

This discussion is much more relevant in the context of “high speed trains”.  There is a broad theme among many that the US is behind because we have not invested large sums of public money in high speed trains, that we are “falling behind”.  Per wikipedia the Japanese high speed trains (similar to the Chinese high speed trains) typically have more than 1000 passengers on each of their trains.

The USA has far larger distances than the Japanese trains.  If you built a train from Chicago to New York, for example, it would be almost 800 miles long.  This is for a single rail line.  Obviously to connect the major cities of the USA you’d have thousands of miles of train lines.

How would these train lines be defended?  It would be easy for a terrorist to just cut through the fence somewhere and park a cement truck on the tracks, for instance.  The ensuing carnage would easily accomplish what 5-10 hijackings could accomplish.

If you think that the Homeland Security plans are over-reaching, just wait to see what it would take to defend hundreds or thousands of miles of track.  Instead of having a bottleneck at the airport, the entire line would be a potential point of attack.  Even if defenses were erected, they would only have to overwhelm them at a single weak link in order to assault the train.

No one is incorporating this into their cost estimates for high speed trains; they likely have fences and barriers but are not contemplating stopping a determined, armed attack by terrorists.  They should, because after one such attack a giant post-haste effort would emerge kind of like our early days of the TSA.  They should contemplate and include a giant, armed, unionized Federal bureaucracy in their midst and add this into their cost estimates and see how it compares against highways and aircraft.  The numbers, already dubious, would then be far, far in the red.

Cross posted at LITGM

25 thoughts on “Trains are Indefensible”

  1. The real answer to the high speed train question is that the United States has the best railroad system in the world. It is just not optimized for passenger travel. It is optimized for freight, and as a result, the US ships more freight by rail than by truck. The reverse is the case in Europe.

    What should we do with Amtrak? Shut it down. It just gets in the way of the real purpose of railroad transport.

    BTW. If you are worried about the security of rail transit, why are you willing to allow Arabs to fly airplanes around the United States?

  2. >What should we do with Amtrak? Shut it down. It just gets in the way of the real purpose of railroad transport.<

    the northeast electrified corridor infrastructure should be retained. the operation of it should be given out to contract. the rest of it should be the states contracting together with the railroads involved. amtrak then could be a 50 person federal operation dispensing subsidies.

  3. Keeping Amtrak 50 percent in Fed’s control seems to me to be like being only 50 percent pregnant–an impossibility. If the Feds retain that much control they will essentially run the thing contracts or not

  4. I think terrorists are not as dim as Dearie thinks. That is why they seem to be running electrical utility raid simulations and dry runs. Utilities stand still while trains are moving targets.

    Newly reported details about a 52-minute sniper attack on a central California electrical substation last year are raising concerns from Capitol Hill and beyond, amid questions over whether it was the work of terrorists.

    The April 16, 2013, attack had not been widely publicized until The Wall Street Journal reported new details in a story on Wednesday. The attack reportedly started when at least one person entered an underground vault to cut telephone cables, and attackers fired more than 100 shots into Pacific Gas & Electric’s Metcalf transmission substation, knocking out 17 transformers. Electric officials were able to avert a blackout, but it took 27 days to repair the damage.

    Notice also that it was reported only by Fox News and the WSJ. The MSM is not interested in these stories. Reuters and CNN did do stories.

  5. Amtrak should be privatized instantly – not tomorrow, not later today, NOW. The human conductors that caused the deaths in New York and will eventually be proven to have caused the deaths in Philly should all be done away with and these trains should be autonomous. We certainly have the tech for that.

    The “high speed” train project in California will prove to be the biggest single boondoggle in the history of the earth. An absolutely endless pit of money that will accomplish practically nothing. You heard it here first.

  6. The original design for BART{Bay Area Rapid Transit} system called for autonomous trains with no operator.
    THAT went by the wayside real quickly.
    Designs also called for train control signals to be sent via the rails. Details have escaped memory, but it was apparently designed totally ignorant of the ‘hash’ that would be present in the cars and the system itself. It didn’t work. The chosen frequencies and mechanism, AM or FM was just wrong.
    Either way, the trains have had operators from the beginning and will likely retain them until the last car pulls into the yard.
    Public transit of just about any mode or method is a juicy target for those who wish to engender terror. Buses, plains, trains, and even ships can and have been targeted successfully, and will continue to be targets of opportunity. The protectors have to win each and every time, while the attacking forces just have to be successful once.
    Until the religion of terror is reformed, things will continue to degrade. Count on it.

  7. There’s already plenty of voter’s remorse in California regarding the high speed rail line.

  8. My wife recently had an interesting observation that passenger rail is hobbled by the idea that it is solely a transportation method. Conceive of it as a venue and the economic calculations of the thing change.

  9. “Conceive of it as a venue and the economic calculations of the thing change.”
    I don’t understand what you mean. Please elaborate.

  10. “…why are you willing to allow Arabs to fly airplanes around the United States?”

    After enough domestic terror attacks many more people will be asking that question.

  11. With some minor adjustments of law so that you don’t have to worry about the many, many jurisdictions you’re traveling through, a gambling, alcohol fueled, pot smoking, raving, whoring, party train becomes a secondary revenue stream. Or, come to think of it, the primary revenue stream. For the incremental cost of adding some cars on existing routes, you change the revenue structure in a positive direction (and yes, the list was intended to shock in order to promote conversation).

    There are also less controversial possibilities like corporate outings.

  12. “Party train hijacked West of Cleveland, story at six..” Actually, as I recall, the club car on Amtrak was quite lively back in the seventies. I regularly made the run between Boston/NYC/DC and can remember some pretty wild stuff. Of course, that wasn’t just on the train, it was the seventies. But yeah, like the infamous and now outlawed booze cruises; “bring bail money” As late as the mid-nineties I was still riding the T into Boston everyday and we would often hear large objects hit the car coming into Dorchester, etc. so I would not at all be surprised if some urban cowboy took a shot in Philly. It’s a constant problem.

  13. I watch Lawrence of Arabia these days, and I’m seriously tempted to cheer for the Turks over the Sauds…

  14. You wouldn’t need a cement truck. Any car or pickup with four wheels can be rolled on to a RR track. Buy them in junkyards, rent them at Avis.

    High speed rail in California would be a terrorist’s wet dream.

  15. The trains have a safety feature that allows a computer in Amtrack HQ to take control and slow or stop the train. Because the train is moving the signal from HQ Computer to the train must be over-the-air.

    The mysterious, massive acceleration of the train going into the famous Deadman’s Curve must have been caused by an evil hacker (probably) working for ISIS. I suppose all high speed Amtrac Trains can be hacked.

  16. There is one advantage for trains from a terrorism perspective of course. You can’t really hijack a train (you can take it hostage, but it isn’t going anywhere other than where the railroad wants it to).

    High-speed rail is harder to sabotage than you might think, mainly because the lines are dedicated and constructed to avoid roads (you don’t want a 200 mph train crossing a road ever). To avoid a major accident (as distinct from insuring you can run the trains under any circumstances) you mostly need surveillance, which is probably easier now than it has ever been. So it would be easy to interrupt service, but harder to actually cause an incident.

    Bombing a packed commuter train is probably easier and more disruptive.

  17. “Bombing a packed commuter train is probably easier and more disruptive.” As in the Spanish example. Successful large-scale terrorist attacks side 9/11 have been sufficiently rare that I wonder if we are paying them off. Or are the terrorists few, dim, and heavily infiltrated?

  18. Trains are more exposed than aircraft, but they are also a lot more robust.

    In Of Spies and Stratagems, Stanley Lovell (OSS research chief in WW II) wrote about the struggle to find a way for resistance fighters to derail trains reliably. And the solution was still classified when he wrote his book 20 years later.

  19. Amtrak is not as bad as many conservatives like to rant.

    Outside the NE corridor, it is a niche service, and the NE corridor is heavily subsidized by taxpayers in every state. Amtrak has even been accussed (in Trains Magazine) of cooking the books to make the NE corridor runs look less costly at the expense of the long-distance routes.

    One thing would work miracles for improving Amtrak operations and financials – bust the Amtrak unions. The mechanics don’t fix things and the train attendants get gravy work rules. Amtrak had to reduce service on the Sunset Limited (LA-New Orleans) from daily to three times a week because the operating crews, per union work rules, got a full week in New Orleans as a lay-over with full pay AND expenses each east-bound trip.

    Of Congress will play games with Amtrak – that’s what politicans do. But the routes are some of the best ways to really see America and I greatly prefer a long, relaxing train ride to a shorter airplane trip full of hassles.

    As to sabotage, commuter trains in many urban badlands have to have steel bars on the engineer’s windowshields to protect them from thrown rocks. Railroads, like so much of civilization, is vulnerable to those who would destroy it.

Comments are closed.