Security under scrutiny in wake of foiled French train attack

4 min

Europe’s railway security is under new scrutiny after a heavily armed gunman launched an attack on a train from Amsterdam to Paris on Friday. But some in the industry warn that there is a trade-off between better security and efficiency.


The accused gunman, named as 25-year-old Moroccan national Ayoub El Khazzani, boarded the Thalys express train in Brussels on Friday armed with a Kalashnikov assault rifle, a Luger automatic pistol, nine cartridge clips and a box-cutter, investigators say.

Off-duty US servicemen and other passengers were able to overpower Khazzani soon after he opened fire. The incident prompted the French state rail company, SNCF, to say it would introduce an emergency hotline for reporting "abnormal situations".

Belgium said it would increase baggage checks and patrols at international railway stations. After an emergency meeting of the national security council on Saturday, Prime Minister Charles Michel's office announced that Franco-Belgian security patrols would be increased on the high-speed Thalys trains, which link major cities in the Netherlands and Belgium to Paris.

Beefed-up security measures were also introduced at airports in the wake of the 9/11 attacks in the United States, including tougher security checks for travellers. But some in the rail industry point out that trains will never be able to match the level of scrutiny now seen in air travel.

"The idea of extending the airport system to railway stations today isn't something that I can call realistic," said SNCF chief Guillaume Pepy.

"There's a choice ̶  you either have comprehensive security, or low [transport] efficiency."

Many of the railway hubs still in service today were built in the 19th and 20th centuries and were designed to maximise the movement of people onto and off of trains ̶  a free-flowing circulation that would make stopping for security checks difficult, with dozens of trains departing or arriving at peak times.

Moreover, large rail hubs are served by a vast network of smaller stations ̶  3,000 of them in France alone.

"Airplanes leave from a specific place ̶  you can build a security apparatus around it," said Raffaello Pantucci of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London.

"It's just not possible to do that with trains. You would have to do that at every station."

Moreover, retrofitting the national and international railway networks so that they meet airport-style criteria would be astronomically costly, said Marc Ivaldi at the IDEI research institute in Toulouse.

"The task is strictly impossible in the immediate future," he said.

But Ivaldi added that increasing security on certain high-risk routes was the priority. "The key need is to secure the Thalys and a certain number of high-speed trains," he said.

In the absence of regular station screening, security services must rely on high-visibility troop patrols, spot checks, encouraging the public to be vigilant, installing video surveillance cameras and increasing coordination between police and railway security.

The notable exception in Europe for security screening is the cross-Channel Eurostar service that connects Britain to France and Belgium: Passengers must arrive at the terminal around 30 minutes before their scheduled departure time so that they can go through baggage and ID checks.

But even the Eurostar’s baggage screening is less demanding than at airports, with items X-rayed but no limit on bringing on liquids.

Other European nations have moved to boost railway security even before the latest attack. Passengers departing from some major stations in Italy have been subject to security checks before boarding since May 1.

Railway security in Spain has been tightened ever since coordinated bomb attacks targeted Madrid's commuter rail network on March 11, 2004, leaving 191 dead and 1,800 injured in the deadliest terror attack in Spain's recent history. All passengers boarding Spain’s long-distance trains now have their luggage checked.

(FRANCE 24 with AP and AFP)

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