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Penn State study suggests ways to improve US rail safety

A new study conducted by two Penn State faculty members highlights the potential threats to America’s railroad system, examines the response of government and the rail industry to the post-9/11 security responsibilities, and suggests ways in which public policy and rail operations can be better directed to meet the challenges of security in an age of terrorist activity.

“Efforts to secure the nation’s rail system have been undertaken by federal, state, and local government agencies and by private rail operators,” say Jeremy Plant, professor of public administration and public policy, and Richard Young, professor of supply chain management at Penn State’s Harrisburg Campus.

Although these activities differ fundamentally between the passenger and freight services, the North American rail network is characterized by those services often sharing the same infrastructure.

“Resources currently directed to rail security are inadequate, given the potential for catastrophic loss of life or economic disruption from attacks on the rail system,” researchers say. “The growing use of rail systems for work-related passenger travel and the critical role played by freight railroads in the U.S. and global commerce makes insuring their security a matter of urgent public concern.”

The study, “Securing and Protecting America’s Railroad System: U.S. Railroad and Opportunities for Terrorist Threats,” was supported by Citizens for Rail Safety, Inc., a national nonprofit public interest organization. Among the other findings in the study are:

Traditional approaches to rail security, focusing on policing and cordoning of rail assets, are inadequate to provide security against post-9/11 terrorist threats. The North American rail network is too vast and diverse to be protected simply through more policing, surveillance or anti-trespass measures.

Responsibilities for rail security remain divided among a number of federal agencies, between federal and state agencies, between government and the private sector, and between shippers, users, and providers.

The role played by the rail industry in intermodal shipments, especially those involving the movement of cargo from and through port facilities, represents a major area of risk that the railroad industry may find difficult to prevent.

Terrorist acts directed against freight railroads pose a range of threats from destruction of freight and infrastructure to doing harm to the economy at large.

Among the recommendations from Dr. Plant and Dr. Young are:

Congress needs to pass comprehensive rail security legislation and allocate adequate financial and administrative resources to enhance current security efforts.

Passenger operations in major urban areas, in particular those that have been targets of past terrorist acts, should receive increased percentages of all funds expended for rail security.

Coordination between the array of law enforcement agencies and railroad police needs to be improved. The role played by the railroads and their own police forces is a recognized strength that needs to be further leveraged and not displaced by government resources.

The liability borne by railroads for the safety of trespassers needs to be addressed. Moreover, the penalties imposed on those trespassing needs to be put on the same footing as for other modes.

A congressionally established National Commission on Rail Security should be created and empowered to study the state of rail security.

Efforts to involve the general public and the rail enthusiast should be supported and expanded.

The lessons learned from efforts to protect other modes of transportation should be examined for their potential to enhance rail safety, whether it be for passengers or freight.

Enhanced training of rail personnel to deal with both the prevention of terrorism and its aftermath is necessary and should be a shared public and private responsibility.

The full report is available on the Citizens for Rail Safety Web site at

Steve Hevner | EurekAlert!
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