The heroism of the passengers who foiled a potentially calamitous attack aboard a high-speed Amsterdam-to-Paris train Friday is undeniable. Their praises have been sung, their stories shared and their images globally distributed almost immediately after the harrowing event, thanks to social media and a public breathing a grateful but momentary sigh of relief.
But the relief can only be momentary when the glow of a happy ending masks a shadowy unease. Although the suspect, Ayoub El-Khazzani, denies having links to terrorism, the fact remains that he is but the latest to expose the lax security on European trains.
Airports have beefed up security and tightened restrictions, but 11 years after a terrorist attack on a commuter train in Madrid left 191 people dead and a decade after the London Underground was similarly targeted, little seems to have been done to better protect train passengers.
Experts cite two prohibitive reasons: cost and design. Europe’s passenger rail system is renowned and envied, especially by train aficionados in the United States. It is also, however, as old as it is extensive. Many rail hubs constructed in the 19th and 20th centuries were built for maximum “people movement,” writes France24.
The constant arrival and departure of dozens of locomotives at peak hours make security stops all but impossible. As Raffaello Pantucci, director of international security studies at London’s Royal United Services Institute, said:
Airplanes leave from a specific place. You can build a security apparatus around it. It’s just not possible to do that with trains. You would have to do that at every station.
Many hubs connect to smaller stops in the outer suburbs. France alone has 3,000 such feeder stations, says France24. Even if it were theoretically possible to adopt an airport-style security regime, that would require that each station be overhauled with pricey new equipment and machinery.
With many European countries recently suffering economic reverses or, in the case of Spain, still finding their footing after exiting European Union-imposed austerity plans, retrofitting decades-old train stations is not even close to being a priority.
Still, something clearly needs to be done. Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel would like to see a return to identity and luggage checks on international routes, although that would, writes The Telegraph, go against the very core of the Schengen Agreement, which basically scrapped border controls for citizens in mainland Europe three decades ago. Michel, known as a passionate defender of that pact, explained his about-face in The Telegraph article, saying:
The Schengen Agreement is important for our economy and our citizens, but we are now faced with new threats in Europe, and so we’ll maybe have to move towards new rules in identity and baggage checks. It is certainly a boon to economic development and freedom of movement for those who have good intentions, but this freedom is also used in order to harm. The goal is not to suppress freedoms but to deal with a threat.
In the meantime, Belgium has called on France, Germany and The Netherlands, the three bigger nations with which it shares a border, to do what is necessary to improve security on their side. A meeting of high-ranking Belgian and French officials produced a call for more patrols and baggage checks on the high-speed Thalys line, which traverses both countries and was the scene of Friday’s incident.
Currently, the United Kingdom, which is not a part of the Schengen free-travel zone, conducts somewhat stringent checks on its Eurostar trains linking Britain and France. Plus, transit police assigned to Eurostar stations are armed. Similarly, Madrid has toughened security measures in Atocha, its central train station, including a requirement that travelers arrive early to queue for security checks.
Of course, even these measures shy in comparison to their counterparts at many airports. And if, as The New York Times writes, trains and train stations remain “soft targets” ripe for exploitation, European leaders would do well to put a comprehensive plan in place sooner rather than later.
For, if nothing else, this latest near-miss should make it evident that the question those leaders should be asking is not how much would it cost to make rail travel in Europe safer but, rather, how much might it cost not to.