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Railway-security measures expensive, experts say

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TORONTO -- For all the calls to consider ramping up rail security after police foiled what's being called the first al-Qaida-directed plot in the country, experts suggest investing in counterterrorism intelligence remains the best way to keep the public safe.

The Ontario government voiced a desire Tuesday to talk to its federal counterparts about increasing security on passenger trains after two men were charged in an alleged plot to attack a Via Rail train.

U.S. officials have said the target of the alleged attack RCMP detailed on Monday was a train that runs between New York City and Canada. Via Rail and Amtrak jointly run a route between New York City and Toronto.

Via Rail has said it continually focuses on the safety of its passengers and employees, and urged the public to maintain its confidence in rail travel.

"To disclose any actions and initiatives that we do would defeat the purpose of ensuring security," said spokesman Jacques C. Gagnon, who added that just because the company's safety efforts weren't visible didn't mean they weren't going ahead.

Nonetheless, news of the alleged train attack prompted the Ontario government to voice its concerns.

"It's a horrific situation," said Premier Kathleen Wynne. "Obviously we have to, as government, do everything we can to make sure that we keep people safe and that we get the information as early as possible."

The province's attorney general went further, saying that until recently, airport security has received the lion's share of attention, something he suggested might need to change.

"The comment is often made, well, you know, should we have the same kind of security mechanisms in other transportation methods as well, such as trains," John Gerresten said.

"I'm sure those are the kind of issues we will be looking at collectively with the federal government to make sure people are as secure as possible when they travel."

But some observers who've studied terrorism and security issues extensively say more physical security measures on sprawling rail networks would be expensive and would still fail to cover all possible vulnerable points.

"The success we have comes from good intelligence, it comes from our existing strategy of pre-emptive counterterrorism based on effective networking by our intelligence agencies," said John Thomson, vice-president of intelligence with consulting firm Strategic Capital Intelligence Group.

"If we want to increase our security, let's increase our security for every conceivable target by spending more on our inset teams and our counter-intelligence programs."

Thomson added trains simply aren't as attractive a target to terrorists as airplanes, as attacks on them wouldn't result in as many casualties.

"You don't quite get the same return from threatening a train that you would from an aircraft," he said. "Aircrafts are also flag-carriers, they've got an amount of national prestige, which isn't the same with a train."

Implementing physical measures such as extensive baggage screening and metal detectors in all train stations would only be a "vexation" and cause delays, he said.

Still, railways and the trains that travel on them are susceptible to attack, said Andrew Mack, a security expert and professor in the school for international studies at Simon Fraser University.

"It's not been apparent that many things had been done to safeguard and provide security from terrorist attacks on trains," he said. "They are vulnerable targets. Whether or not terror organizations have interests in destroying them is not so clear."


-- The Canadian Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 24, 2013 A7

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