In late August 2015, a man armed with an assault rifle, a handgun and enough ammunition to slaughter more than two hundred people was overpowered when his gun jammed on a train from Amsterdam to Paris. News reports suggested that the man had links to a fundamentalist Islamic terror cell. On arrest however, he claimed his intent was simply to rob those on the train.
There has been much debate about why airport-style security does not exist at international train terminals. Why are rail passengers not having their luggage searched and passing through metal-arches before boarding their train?
Part of the problem for Europe’s cross-border rail companies is the Schengen Agreement. In place since 1985, Europe's Schengen Area currently consists of 26 European countries with no internal borders, covering a population of over 400 million people. It mostly functions as a single country for international travel purposes, with a common visa policy. Allowing free movement and abolishing passport control at common borders however, makes it relatively simple for organised criminals and terrorists to transport people, money and weapons around.
The creation of airport-style security for cross-border train travel could potentially limit the use of the European railway network for organised crime. Criminals would have to supply passports, tickets and be subject to strict searches. This would create an obstacle which doesn't currently exist and would have to be navigated by them. But will this honestly stop them moving around?
When we target harden one area - it merely displaces criminal activity from one place across to the next weakest link in the chain. This is true of all crimes, including terrorism.
In April 1992, the IRA detonated a truck bomb at the Baltic Exchange in the City of London. The following spring, explosive devices planted in litter bins killed two children in Warrington. Just a month later, in April 1993, another huge lorry bomb detonated - this time at Bishopsgate in the City. Collectively, these three acts killed five people, injured one hundred and thirty-three and caused more than one billion pounds worth of damage.
The City of London responded to this with the creation of the ‘Ring of Steel’ - a series of vehicle checkpoints manned by police officers and backed up by hundreds of CCTV cameras. Vehicular access to the City was severely restricted and all two thousand litter bins were removed from the Square Mile.
Following this, there was a brief lull in IRA activity. But then, in 1996, the IRA detonated a large lorry bomb at Docklands in London - three miles from the ‘Ring of Steel’. The attack killed two people and caused a hundred million pounds worth of damage. Nine days later, an IRA terrorist accidentally blew himself up while transporting an explosive device on a London bus travelling along Wellington Street in Aldwych. Buses were not subject to searches as they passed through the ‘Ring of Steel’.
Rather than stop the attacks, the new security measures simply caused the terrorists to change tactics and target different locations.
Fundamentalist Islamic terrorism is no different…
In 2006, Police and Security Services intervened in what has commonly become known as the Transatlantic Airline Plot. Islamic fundamentalists wanted to smuggle hydrogen-peroxide-based liquid explosives onto planes and detonate them mid flight. This led to a change in policy; liquids were banned from aircraft and search procedures were radically changed. The result was that air travel became less vulnerable to the would-be passenger-based terrorists. However, just ten months later, in 2007, a terrorist attempted to drive a car laden with propane gas cylinders into a plane terminal at Glasgow airport.
Will more thorough check-in measures and airport-style searches at international train stations lessen the chances of terror attacks on those trains? Yes, of course they will. Will it prevent terror attacks on international train travelers? No - the terrorists and criminals will simply change tactics and attack the next weakest link, perhaps derailing high speed trains or targeting train travelers as they enter the train terminal.
It is doubtless that there will be some changes both here and abroad to international train travel, and, I think this is long overdue. However the issue is how we stop people wanting to attack others or getting their hands on the weapons and materials to do so - not hardening potential targets and simply displacing the problem somewhere else.