A Polish 14-year-old caused a lot of damage in downtown Lodz three years ago by rigging a TV remote control that let him switch track points on the city's tram system. He derailed four trains and injured dozens of people.
"He treated it like any other schoolboy might a giant train set," Miroslaw Micor, a police spokesman in Lodz, said at the time. "But it was lucky nobody was killed."
Since the raid on Osama bin Laden's house in Pakistan uncovered some notes about a future vision of derailed American trains, it's worth remembering that the idea isn't terribly new. America's huge rail network — never mind the ambitious high-speed lines yet to be built — would be vulnerable for obvious reasons, and some critics have complained for months that Obama's expensive high-speed rail dreams would be wide-open targets for al-Qaeda.
The main reason is that blowing up a track is tougher than it sounds. "Getting a bomb to go off at the right time is difficult," write the Mineta study authors. "Timers are unreliable if the trains do not run precisely on time, and pressure triggers do not always work."
Sabotaging the switching points — the Polish kid's method — would be more reliable, but it takes more cleverness. Mechanical sabotage of all kinds (high- and low-tech) derailed trains with 76 percent success rate in the Mineta report's samples — but it was much more rare than setting bombs. Only 25 out of the sample of 181 derailment attempts were acts of mechanical sabotage.
In 1995, an Algerian terrorist group called the Groupe Islamique Armé tried to bomb a line of the TGV, France's high-speed rail, near Lyon. It was an attack with al-Qaeda-like aspirations. "The psychological effect of an explosion on the train would have been enormous," the Mineta study points out. "France's TGV was the first high-speed rail system in Europe and today remains a source of national pride."
The bomb misfired, and the suspect eventually died in a shootout with police. French officials knew the GIA wanted to cause mayhem any way it could — including hijacking an airliner meant to smash into the Eiffel Tower a few months before. But officials resisted the urge to post metal detectors at all French train stations and force millions of passengers to take off belts and shoes. Instead, they doubled the number of inspectors sweeping the rails every morning for bombs.
"French authorities ... emphasize the importance of deploying limited resources in ways that terrorists cannot predict, persuading them that they face a high risk of being apprehended," write the Mineta authors. "The French also place great importance on intelligence operations to monitor the activities of groups and individuals engaged in terrorist radicalization and recruiting."
The point is that airport-style security would ruin everything good about a high-speed train, so light security lines have remained the rule with European rail. Terrorism has been a steady risk in Europe for decades, but even where authorities screen baggage — on some French, Spanish, and British high-speed lines — the wait tends to be quick.
Which doesn't stop some American security experts, like Dr. Seyom Brown in the Texas news report linked here, from urging full screening of passengers even on light-rail systems like Dallas-Area Rapid Transit.
"I don't like it, but those are such vulnerable targets. I hope we don't have to wait for an attack to occur before we start doing that," Brown told WFAA News in Dallas last week. "... If it's somebody getting on a train with a suicide vest, a bomb vest, right now, we don't have very effective screening of people who are getting on trains."
The dirty secret, of course, is that full security on any train system is impossible.
Intriguingly, the Mineta study looked at 181 derailing attempts around the world since 1920 and found a full third of them in "South Asia" — India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan. "The deadliest attacks have occurred in the developing countries," says the report, probably because poor nations lack the budget to sweep and patrol their train systems. So the idea of an American train disaster didn't have to dawn on bin Laden from headlines about Washington's push for high-speed rail; in fact his imagination didn't have to wander far at all.