Random Bag Searches for Train Travel

train1.jpgAccording to the AP:

Amtrak will start randomly screening passengers’ carry-on bags this week in a new security push that includes officers with automatic weapons and bomb-sniffing dogs patrolling platforms and trains.

The initiative, to be announced by the railroad on Tuesday, is a significant shift for Amtrak. Unlike the airlines, it has had relatively little visible increase in security since the 2001 terrorist attacks, a distinction that has enabled it to attract passengers eager to avoid airport hassles.

Indeed, one of the joys of train travel is the absence of inconvenient security practices. Amtrak appears to be trying to create a system of random searches akin to the NYC subway random search program, which I have criticized in the past as being largely symbolic.

The Amtrak system is a bit less intrusive, however:

The teams will show up unannounced at stations and set up baggage screening areas in front of boarding gates. Officers will randomly pull people out of line and wipe their bags with a special swab that is then put through a machine that detects explosives. If the machine detects anything, officers will open the bag for visual inspection.

Anybody who is selected for screening and refuses will not be allowed to board and their ticket will be refunded.

In addition to the screening, counterterrorism officers with bomb-sniffing dogs will patrol platforms and walk through trains, and sometimes will ride the trains, officials said.

Interestingly, there has been no terrorist bombing on any Amtrak train post 9-11. I often hear the specious argument that various security measures (NSA surveillance, random subway searches, government data mining, etc.) are effective because of the fact we haven’t had any terrorist attacks recently. But one can make the same silly argument about Amtrak — it did little to nothing about security, and . . . abracadabra . . . no terrorist attacks! So according to this logic, the no-security system must really work, right?

Of course, who can argue with a few bomb sniffing dogs and some magic wands? It doesn’t seem all that bad. But will it be effective? I don’t really know. But my sense is that neither do the so-called security experts, who seem to dream up various security measures without doing much of a sophisticated analysis of their effectiveness. For example, according to the AP article:

Amtrak has received a number of federal grants aimed at boosting security, but officials said there was no specific mandate to implement the changes.

“There is no new or different specific threat,” [Amtrak chief executive] Kummant said. “This is just the correct step to take.”

Why is it “just the correct step to take”? Because it feels right? Because it seems like a useful expenditure of resources from the gut level? It would be interesting if we started to examine security more scientifically. I, for one, would welcome having better facts when evaluating security measures. I think that more sophisticated study of security will benefit both those who concoct various security programs and those who criticize them.

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3 Responses

  1. Samir Chopra says:

    This is a real pity. Just last week, I traveled up to Union College for a talk, and was struck (once again) by how much more comfortable a train ride was than a plane trip. And now this. Refusing a bag search on the NYC subway is relatively painless; not so on a Amtrak trip, where one’s destination is much further away, and trains less frequent.

  2. KipEsquire says:

    “In addition to the screening, counterterrorism officers with bomb-sniffing dogs will … walk through trains, and sometimes will ride the trains, officials said.”

    This comes perilously close to constituting a (suspicionless) dog sniff of a person’s body, a uniquely instrusive search that has never been sanctioned by any court, and certainly not by the Supreme Court.

  3. 2005 says:

    Wow. I’m willing to pay extra for Amtrak because I can show up 5 minutes before the train leaves and not have to have rude incompetents rifle through my stuff. I may have to switch to Greyhound if this continues.