WHETHER security gates should be introduced at railway stations has been debated among experts and politicians for some time, but it was only in the aftermath of the Paris attacks in November 2015, and subsequent introduction of tight controls on Thalys cross-border trains in France that the discussion became a hot topic across Europe.
The French government called upon other countries served by Thalys to introduce similar measures. The response was mixed. And now, nine months later - and after the Brussels bombings in March - an assessment of the pilot project seems due.
Security screenings at stations are not new. Metal scanners and x-ray machines for luggage were implemented at some stations on the Spanish high-speed network following the 2004 Madrid train bombings. Russia also introduced similar measures, although only with occasional screening of baggage, when security was tightened ahead of the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
A special high-security regime is also in place for Eurostar trains connecting the European mainland with Britain via the Channel Tunnel. Here, screenings of passengers and their belongings are complemented by border controls, which include identity checks and an airport-style transfer zone.
In France, the idea to introduce security screenings at stations has been discussed ever since ecology minister Ms Ségolène Royal, who is also responsible for transport, spoke out in favour of airport-style controls after the shooting on the Paris-bound Thalys train from Amsterdam on August 21 2015.
A media debate between Royal and SNCF president Mr Guillaume Pepy soon developed after the latter publicly dismissed the minister’s demands for a quick introduction of such measures. Pepy argued that it was unfeasible as they would compromise the openness of the railway system. However, the French government’s number three eventually had her way after the November 2015 attacks – the second terrorist attack in Paris that year after the Charlie Hebdo shootings in January.
At the minister’s behest, security gates have been installed at the platforms serving Thalys trains at Gare du Nord in Paris and Lille Europe, entering operation in December 2015. Passengers are now only able to board the trains after passing gates with metal detectors and luggage checks in corresponding scanners.
The checks are less rigorous than at airports as passengers are not required to empty their pockets or take computers and liquids out of their bags. Still, passing through the checkpoint procedure can take 20-30 minutes due to long queues.
Equipping all relevant platforms was relatively straightforward as Thalys trains only serve these two stations in France. However, since they constitute an international service with multiple stops in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany, the security regime introduced in France is useless if not reciprocated by all countries served.
This immediately led to questions over where controls should be deployed in the long-term.
The most pressing issue was the extension of the measures across international borders to other Thalys stations, but French appeals for the only other countries involved to follow its example have been met with limited response. Only Belgium has endorsed the idea, having made funds available for similar measures. The Netherlands and Germany have so far remained dismissive.
Equally, no extension is foreseen for France’s domestic services, despite its extensive TGV high-speed network being as much of a potential target for terrorists as the Thalys trains. Initially, Royal publicly contemplated applying such security checks to a wide range of trains including not just the TGV network, but also other inter-city, regional (TER) trains and even suburban lines.
However, five months into the pilot no further extension has materialised.
That Gare du Nord and Lille Europe were equipped with gates and scanners so quickly was due to the availability of security equipment after the COP 21 Climate Change Conference in Paris. This eliminated the otherwise significant acquisition cost and the time needed for the entire operation. However, installation and operation still costs around €2.5m a year for each platform. So with a further 24 Thalys stations and no unwanted security equipment available, it is no surprise that some countries are shunning the expense.
Also France would arguably struggle to cope with the expenditure necessary to protect its domestic network in the same way. There are approximately 200 TGV stations alone and the cost given above would have to be multiplied by the number of platforms used by each train. Moreover, the country has around 3000 stations and protection of each regional or suburban service would require a similar investment. SNCF would then either have to pass on expenses of this scale to its customers or receive substantial financial aid from the state.
Not surprisingly, a discussion about sources of financing has begun and has even led to a proposed EU-wide tax on tickets, similar to that used in the aviation sector. Still it remains questionable if the state, the sector and passengers could stomach the necessary financial burden.
Implementation costs are not the only challenge. Many experts are worried that the inconvenience associated with a new security regime might scare passengers off even more than increased ticket prices. France’s National Federation of Transport Users Associations (FNAUT) says that “trains have to remain an open means of transport” and warns against the inevitable queues and the resulting discomfort for passengers, particularly if the measures become commonplace on regional or suburban services, which would impact business travellers and commuters.
The French example underlines the challenges facing the introduction of airport-style security on the entire European Union (EU) railway network, where there are approximately 22,000 stations which are used by more than 7 billion passengers per year. This compares with less than 2000 airports in the EU which were used by 842 million passengers in 2013.
Unsurprisingly, the European Passenger Federation (EPF) agrees with FNAUT and emphasises that railway passengers would struggle to accept airport security measures as they consider the ability to turn up and go as one of the advantages of rail. Moreover, surveys show that despite recent terror attacks in Europe, railway users are more concerned about ticket prices, vandalism and punctuality.
Surprisingly, costs and modal shift may not be the main argument against the rollout of airport-style security checks on railways. After all, significant cost may still be justified by the ability to save human lives.
However, instead of neutralising part of the terrorist threat, security gates at railway stations may just force would-be terrorists to choose easier targets.
Indeed, a report from members of the French Senate concluded that security measures at stations may lead terrorists to target buses or congested road traffic. In addition, queues of people waiting to pass through security gates may become targets in their own right. Introducing controls would, therefore, be a mere “displacement of the risks [from inside the trains] to the interior of the stations.”
Previous experiences seem to confirm the senators’ conclusion. The Madrid attacks targeted suburban trains and achieved a significant death toll due to the high loadings during rush hour. These trains would then be a logical alternative target if international trains and national high-speed trains were given special protection.
In addition, during the 2013 Volgograd bombings, one of the suicide bombers detonated his explosives while waiting in line at the station security gates while the second bomber targeted a trolleybus station.
Even the November 2015 Paris attacks contribute to the notion that checks may merely move the threat from indoors to outdoors, as the first suicide bomber reportedly detonated his explosive belt after being rejected at the security check to a football stadium.
For now, the deployment of security gates in France has come to a halt. While SNCF confirmed that the scanning facilities already installed on the Thalys platforms will remain in place, it will not pursue the plan to introduce security controls at the entries of Gare de l’Est in Paris. This comes as a surprise especially against the background of the Brussels bombings on March 22.
On the other hand, the Brussels attacks may have actually dissuaded the French government from further deployment of security measures. This incident confirmed the prediction by experts that gates at selective points will lead attackers to choose other unprotected targets; one attacker blew himself up in the waiting lines in front of the security checks at Brussels National airport, while the other detonated his bomb in the access free metro station Maelbeek.
With huge costs and questionable protection benefits for society as a whole, the perspective for a broader application of security checks at railway stations are rather slim. While some governments may continue to push for their deployment, a Europe-wide introduction is very unlikely.
However, there is a positive outcome that can be attributed to the Paris/Lille pilot; it seems the initiative kicked off an intense continent-wide discussion of the appropriate measures to protect passengers and railways, with many actors looking for methods which would constitute a viable alternative to gates.
In this discussion, it should always be remembered that railways are a means of mass transport using a far-flung array of linear infrastructure and for which a large number of entry and exit points has to be maintained. Since the throughput of the system should not be impeded and because it is virtually impossible to isolate the entire system hermetically, railways will have to remain - with few duly-justified exceptions - an open system.
It is imperative that security measures at stations and onboard trains remain as non-intrusive as possible in order to optimise passenger flow. If not, operators run the risk of their passengers changing to competing connections on other, more easily-accessible modes. This modal shift would eventually render the entire attempt to protect railway users useless.
It is true that railways are able to help in the fight against terrorism, for example by granting security agencies access to information such as video footage. In addition, innovative measures such as the automated analysis of video data aimed at identifying known suspects or recognising behavioural patterns indicating malicious intent are promising alternatives to access controls.
On the other hand, while railway security will contribute its share to combatting the terror threat, it should be self-evident that this constitutes only a small part of the national security system and a minor role in counterterrorism. The priority in terror prevention has to remain with the state, its intelligence agencies and security forces.