Safety in Mass Transit
© 2006 FrontLine Security (Vol 1, No 1)

Recently, an abandoned suitcase was found adjacent to a Brooklyn subway station. It contained surveillance-style photos of NY monuments and, among them, pictures of various subway stations. Disturbingly, it has been revealed that a suspect in the 2004 Madrid bombings, Abdelhak Chergui, had maps of Montreal’s Metro and commuter rail systems in his possession when apprehended by the Spanish police. And last summer the horror can be summed up in the single word: London. Governments everywhere are confronting a security situation that analysts have been warning about for years.

Urban transit systems, by their very nature, are high priority targets for terrorists intent on inflicting mass casualties – undermining public confidence and spreading terror. The challenge is daunting because the critical nature of our infrastructure results not only from its function (moving large volumes of people quickly within our largest cities) but also from the fact that literally hundreds of thousands of people use it on a daily, “hurry up” basis, through multiple access points.

That reality was reinforced with the London attacks. Thereafter, private sector commuter urban rail operators in Canada took the initial lead in identifying what was required to enhance security in this vital infrastructure. This pressure resulted in a November 2005 announcement of a federal commitment of some $110M over three years for the nine major operators. This is a disappointingly inadequate amount in view of what is required.

Operators of these rail facilities recognize the stark reality that civil liability may result from injuries caused, or contributed to, by inadequate security measures. This point was brought home recently in a civil verdict, returned against the NY-NJ Port Authority by a New York jury, for damages suffered by persons injured in the 1993 attack on the World Trade Center. In light of this potential liability and funding shortfalls, operators need to find creative ways to achieve the best security enhancements possible.

One security enhancement, operator-controlled, resilient, emergency communication systems that reliably transmit vital passenger information, can also serve as an education and incident prevention tool.

Successful emergency management must include measures aimed at prevention, mitigation and recovery. Information systems are obviously central to all three of these requirements.

In Toronto's subway system, a new and readily available security and passenger information system, that delivers all of these features, has been installed and ­generates significant revenue for the ­operator. The system features:

Prevention – The sheer volumes of ­people using the TTC combined with its multiple access points and necessary expedited delivery of persons adds a significant challenge to preventing an emergency or attack. Many systems around the world are moving to deploy specialized cameras including face recognition biometrics for ‘lookout’ purposes. At least two of the London bombers were known to British authorities. Our post 9/11 world now features a collective photograph base of thousands of persons whose presence on a subway platform should cause an immediate reaction from security personnel. Although not perfect, this kind of system can provide a significant preventive asset and also an after-the-fact investigatory aid. By the strategic placement of monitors that display passenger information, they can also be used for image capture.

One feature that all new systems are embracing is the use of continual on-site passenger information and education to increase the vigilance of detecting a danger before it occurs. In this way, the large volume of people using the infrastructure actually becomes an effective surveillance system for its protection. Riders can be provided with information of activities or objects that merit attention with on-site contact information. Messages like “If you suspect it, report it” (London) and “If you see something, say something” (NYC) are simple and potentially powerful tools to reduce harm.

Mitigation – Getting relevant and timely information to the right people at the right time is another vital ­element in mitigating the impact of an emergency situation. The London subway attacks, and Ontario’s experiences with SARS and the power blackout, make that abundantly clear. Conversely, the escalating aftermath of Hurricane Katrina demonstrated what occurs when that basic principle is ignored. This implies that information monitors must be secure and subject to the control of the operating authority. In this scenario, persons can be kept away from dangerous sites (including, grimly, the too frequent example of the deliberate secondary attack against civilian ‘rescuers’ such as witnessed in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Moscow, Madrid and Iraq) and up-to-date information to ensure safe evacuation and alternate routing of individuals. Just as in prevention, the deployment of secure, strategically-placed (on the platforms and in cars) emergency visual communications systems, ultimately controlled by the operator are absolutely essential to effective security.

Recovery – Experience shows that timely, relevant and accurate information is a critical factor to both managing the immediate emergency and recovering public confidence thereafter. Having the capacity to manage and deliver on-site information in the fashion that such a ­network makes possible is a significant advantage in meeting this goal.

This is critical to the challenge of today’s economic and security realities. Governments need to identify partnerships to find such practical solutions to the security needs of the 21st century. No system will prevent all incidents, but some can go a long way to improving the safety of our citizens in our most public of spaces, urban transit.

Louis Gagnon is the Vice President of Business Development for ONESTOP Media Group. He can be reached at
© FrontLine Security 2006