TORONTO – For all the calls to consider ramping up rail security after police foiled what’s being called the first al-Qaida directed plot in the country, experts suggest investing in counter-terrorism intelligence remains the best way to keep the public safe.
The Ontario government voiced a desire Tuesday to talk to its federal counterparts about increasing security on passenger trains after two men were charged in an alleged plot to attack a Via Rail train.
U.S. officials have said the target of the alleged attack detailed by RCMP on Monday was a train that runs between New York City and Canada. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly run a route between New York City and Toronto.
Via Rail has said it continually focuses on the safety of its passengers and employees, and urged the public to maintain its confidence in rail travel.
“To disclose any actions and initiatives that we do would defeat the purpose of ensuring security,” said spokesman Jacques C. Gagnon, who added that just because the company’s safety efforts weren’t visible didn’t mean they weren’t going ahead.
Nonetheless, news of the alleged train attack prompted the Ontario government to voice its concerns.
“It’s a horrific situation,” said Premier Kathleen Wynne. “Obviously we have to, as government, do everything we can to make sure that we keep people safe and that we get the information as early as possible.”
The province’s Attorney General went further, saying that until recently airport security has received the lion’s share of attention, something he suggested might need to change.
“The comment is often made, well you know should we have the same kind of security mechanisms in other transportation methods as well, such as trains,” John Gerresten said.
“I’m sure those are the kind of issues we will be looking at collectively with the federal government to make sure people are as secure as possible when they travel.”
But some observers who’ve studied terrorism and security issues extensively say more physical security measures on sprawling rail networks would be expensive and would still fail to cover all possible vulnerable points.
“The success we have comes from good intelligence, it comes from our existing strategy of pre-emptive counter terrorism based on effective networking by our intelligence agencies,” said John Thomson, vice president of intelligence with consulting firm Strategic Capital Intelligence Group.
“If we want to increase our security, let’s increase our security for every conceivable target by spending more on our inset teams and our counter intelligence programs.”
Thomson added that trains simply aren’t as attractive a target to terrorists as airplanes as attacks on them wouldn’t result in as many casualties.
“You don’t quite get the same return from threatening a train that you would from an aircraft,” he said. “Aircrafts are also flag carriers, they’ve got an amount of national prestige, which isn’t the same with a train.”
Implementing physical measures like extensive baggage screening and metal detectors in all train stations would only be a “vexation” and cause delays, he said.
Still, railways and the trains that travel on them are susceptible to attack, said Andrew Mack, a security expert and professor in the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University.
“It’s not been apparent that many things had been done to safeguard and provide security from terrorist attacks on trains,” he said. “They are vulnerable targets. Whether or not terror organizations have interests in destroying them is not so clear.”
But securing an entire rail system simply isn’t practical, particularly when crowded, frequent commuter trains are considered as an example.
“Do we really think that we’re going to get everyone going through metal detectors and opening up their bags as they run for the 8:20?,” asked Mack, adding that securing every track and bridge a train thunders along would require resources that aren’t available.
“The costs of doing all that would be absolutely astronomical. A much more sensible policy would be to focus as much as possible…on intelligence so they can begin to get some idea on where the new attacks might be coming from.”
The two men charged in the alleged terror plot made brief court appearances in Montreal and Toronto on Tuesday.
Raed Jaser, 35, from Toronto and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, from Montreal, were arrested and charged Monday an alleged train attack plot that the RCMP said involved “direction and guidance” from al-Qaida members in Iran.
The accused had the capacity to carry out an attack, but there was no “imminent threat” to the public, the RCMP said.