Tim Compston, Features Editor at Security News Desk and SecurityMiddleEast.com takes a closer at railway security in light of a number of high profile incidents.
The incident on a high speed train travelling from Amsterdam to Paris just over a year ago - which was thankfully thwarted by the actions of those on board - brought into sharp relief just how vulnerable rail passengers are in such confined conditions. More recently, in July, we saw an axe and knife attack on a train in Wuerzburg, Germany, which led to numerous injuries and the assailant being shot by police.
Although such situations have generated considerable media attention, and public consternation, the stark reality is that the targeting of trains, and associated railway infrastructure, is nothing new and, if anything, the threat level is probably higher now than it has ever been. A case, which illustrates the point, was the conviction of two suspects by a Canadian court last year who had been plotting to attack trains operated by the national passenger railway service - Via Rail Canada - on its busy Toronto to New York route.
So given the challenges, what can be done to shore-up railway defences? In the aftermath of the train incident in France the country's Interior Minister, Bernard Cazeneuve, announced a series of initial remedial measures, including more identity and baggage inspections and police patrols.
On the question of whether a move towards mass passenger screening might be a good fit for our railways, Mike O'Neill, Managing Director, of UK-based Optimal Risk Management Limited, doesn’t pull any punches saying that the logistics involved make it a non-starter. This echoes the sentiments of Guillaume Pepy, President of SCNF, who pointed out that, in France alone, there are 20 times as many rail passengers as air passengers. O'Neill goes on to say, however, that more limited action may be possible along the lines of that promoted by the French Interior Minister: "You could of course have spot checks and even some form of passenger profiling in terms of looking for behaviour, looking at the type of luggage or bags that they are carrying." For O'Neill it is the work 'behind-the-scenes' by the security services to identify individuals, ahead of time, that is going to make the difference.
For his part, Mark Marriage, CTO at Digital Barriers, reflects that, although the full spectrum of screening that takes place at airports isn't necessarily workable, a technological solution has come down the track that could, potentially, make a difference where concealed object detection and passive screening is concerned. This is in the guise of compact 'stand-off' people screening: "With standard scanners you have to be inside them and they use active technologies - in other words you are getting irradiated with X-rays or whatever - whereas we use a completely safe and non-invasive screening method which you can just walk past." Drilling down to what is different about this system, Marriage explains that it employs not only CCTV but also a Terahertz camera which receives and interprets the natural Terahertz energy emitted by individuals and the environment: "You can deploy it where you have people walking through key pinch points like ticket gates, for example," concludes Marriage.
Another dilemma for rail operators who have ever more cameras on their trains, and staff being kitted out with body worn video, is how to transmit this footage back in a consistent way to an external control room. Some security experts - like Optimal Risk Management's Mike O'Neill - argue that because events unfold so quickly in the confines of a train there is little that such video footage can add to how an incident plays out, except for post-event analysis: “It is for evidential use, not really for preventative use,” says O’Neill.
Offering his thoughts on this subject, Digital Barriers’ Mark Marriage believes that there are benefits to be gained from being able to distribute real-time footage and, crucially, that technology, which can trace its roots from military applications, is now available to make it happen: “With a traditional compression codec on a train camera you can never deliver its full bandwidth over a wireless link in real-time so you have to compress it and it typically uses a standard compression algorithm, the problem with that is that it is designed to deliver video over a pretty fixed link and it doesn't care about latency," says Marriage. By contrast, he explains that the compression algorithm developed by Digital Barriers is based on a concept which allows the optimising of video to the available bandwidth to avoid latency and break-up.
Considering other innovations that might have a role to play in flagging-up suspicious items or recognising individuals from crowds at railway stations or on trains, Dr Rustom Kanga, CEO at iOmniscient, is an enthusiastic proponent of the power of video analytics: "You can now do face recognition of people of interest in a crowd if you know that there is the potential for people who are on a 'most wanted' list to turn-up.” Added to this, Dr Kanga reckons that picking-up an abandoned bag in a crowded scene is much easier now thanks to what he calls ‘non-motion detection’: "In a railway station where everything is moving - and there could be hundreds or thousands of people - it makes more sense to apply 'non-motion detection' which focuses on the things that have actually stopped moving.”