Monday, March 15, 2004

Atocha Trains Security Hole

I was thinking back to being on the train, and in the Madrid Atocha Station. I asked myself, 'how did the terrorists get all of those backpacks on to the trains'? That was the easiest thing of all. While there were plenty of security personnel visibly walking through the station, none were on the platforms and none on the trains.

When we choose to fly, we generally surrender our bags to be checked, or we carry them on and stow them under the seat or put them in the compartment overhead. One thing you can not do is get on the plane and then get off for a little while. Once you are on board, you stay on board.

This is not the case with train travel in Spain. When you get to the train 30 minutes early, you walk on, drop your bags in the baggage rack, and go out to the platform for a stroll, or even back into the station for a cup of coffee or a magazine. Nobody sits in the train for a half-hour, dutifully waiting for departure. We do it on planes and don't think otherwise.

So many students ride the trains that a bulky backpack placed in the rack would raise no suspicion whatsoever. Anybody could have walked into a train and dropped a bag full of explosives at any time, and nobody would have been the wiser- just as happened. Funny enough, most people feel safe enough that their bags won't be stolen or rifled through, that they didn't mind leaving them in the racks. Ame & I stayed near the cars out of a theft concern, but we were the only ones. The Spaniards were off for a stroll or a cell phone chat, oblivious to the baggage situation.

So, I will bet that if you look at the blown-up trains and observe the location of the explosions, you will find that each spot is the luggage rack. The luggage racks are at the back of each car, near the door, but towards the center side rather than towards the very back of the car. The pictures I have seen so far all verify this.

Now I am thinking of Amtrak. I haven't taken an Amtrak train in ages, so I don't know what the protocols are for boarding and for bags. A good step towards improved security would be the presense of bomb-sniffing dogs on the platforms, and a once-on, stay on policy. Sure, this does nothing to dissuade the committed suicide bomber, but it would go a long way towards preventing an American Atocha.

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