Anyone who has boarded an Amtrak train since Sept. 11, 2001, must wonder how long the delusion can last. How easy it is to waltz into a teeming station 10 minutes before departure, pull your ticket from a machine and glide onto the train without any inspection of your ID or your bags. Your shoes are of no interest to anyone. It's as if Amtrak has been exempted from modernity, and all the fuzzy charm of taking the train remains untouched by time.
The tragedy in Madrid may have put an end to the railroad anachronism. The attack that killed some 200 innocents was cruelly simple. The perpetrators left backpacks full of explosives fitted with simple timers and walked away. "It's a load of rubbish to call it a sophisticated attack," says British security expert Michael Dewar. "You and I could do it." Some 10 million train and subway trips are taken every day in America. Amtrak shuttles 66,000 of those passengers, two-thirds of them through the target-rich northeast corridor. The Washington Metro moves 600,000 people near national monuments. What makes trains useful is what makes them devilishly hard to secure: many doors, high volumes of passengers and thousands of miles of lonely tracks. "I hear people saying it is virtually impossible to make public transport in the U.S. secure," says a former government railway official. "That's wrong. It is impossible."
That doesn't mean we shouldn't try, of course--but so far we haven't tried very hard. The Federal Government is spending $4.5 billion on aviation security this year but only $65 million on rail security--even though five times as many people take trains as planes every day. And if we understand one thing about terrorists, it's that they stick to what they know. Since 2000, bombs have gone off (or been defused) on railways in India, Russia, France, the Philippines, the Czech Republic, South Africa, Israel and Germany. Iyman Faris, a truck driver from Ohio who pleaded guilty last May to providing material support to al-Qaeda, told investigators that the organization wanted to derail a train near Washington. Other intelligence sources reported that al-Qaeda operatives had cased the Washington rail corridor and that some had discussed exploding a train near storage tanks for hazardous chemicals. In France, a shadowy group calling itself AZF claims it has hidden 10 bombs around the country. The group demonstrated its credibility by suggesting investigators dig under a certain rail line; last month they found a small bomb powerful enough to derail a train.
Since 9/11, U.S. transit officials have made some changes. Amtrak and big-city subways have added police and dog units and removed some large, bomb-ready fixtures--like trash cans and vending machines. At Amtrak, names given by passengers are checked against various government watch lists (a spokesman declined to say which ones). Last week Amtrak upped security patrols and electronic surveillance of tracks, bridges and tunnels.