Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Reader Comment – 01-18-10 TIH vs Subways II

Fred Millar responded to my comments on his earlier comments (I love it when we get a dialogue going). Fred wrote:
“Your usual thorough and excellent analysis here is right on, although I was thinking not so much of a terrorist having to penetrate urban security as perhaps attaching an IED to a TIH railcar before it goes into a city (which may have a major transit system, like DC's, largely underground). You leave unanswered how confident we might be of prevention of mass casualties or survival in either TIH or shooting scenarios. In any case, my ultimate point [not expressed before] is that mass transit agencies, cravenly dependent on the mighty freight railroads for shared tracks in many cases, and on the railroads' cooperation not to block the transit tracks too much, have never supported TIH re-routing moves around major cities.”
Transit Agencies and TIH Re-Routing Fred brings up a number of interesting points and I’ll address the last first; transit agencies and re-routing TIH shipments. I think that Fred may be partially correct in stating that these agencies don’t want to upset the people that supply and maintain some portion of their trackage. I suspect, however, that it is probably more a case of ‘it ain’t my job’. Since passenger rail (intra- or inter-city) does not carry TIH chemicals (hopefully anyway), it is not an issue that ‘affects’ them. As Fred pointed out in his earlier comments, an attack on a chlorine railcar near a transit line is effectively an attack on the passenger rail. The problem is that most people (including corporate decision makers) considers that an attack on TIH railcars a very unlikely scenario. The reason goes back to a familiar safety conundrum; if an accident hasn’t happened, it is unlikely. Of course, that reasoning is fallacious since your essentially applying statistics to non-random events. There are factors that make a successful attack on a TIH railcar less likely than some other forms of high-profile terror attacks. First there is a certain level of technical sophistication required; it take specialized explosives to successfully attack a train car designed to withstand 300 psi of internal pressure. Your typical IED will just scratch the paint job. This is a job for a trained, experienced explosives expert, not something that will be done by a web-site wannabe. Secondly, TSA, shippers and the railroad have increased the security observation of urban rail lines and the TIH railcars while reducing the idle time on unobserved sidings. While not nearly the protection that one would provide a train car full of money, it still makes it more difficult to get to the cars with enough time to emplace the sophisticated explosives. More, of course, can be done. None of this makes it impossible, by a long stretch, to successfully attack a TIH railcar; it simply makes it more difficult. It would be easier to steal portable containers and then apply the chemical attack to a specific target. Would it be a ‘more successful’ terrorist attack? That would depend on the target. Preventing Mass Casualties This is always the problem with a terrorist attack. We are completely inured to the thousands of murders that take place in this country every year; we accept thousands of people dying from automotive accidents, but have 300 people almost killed by an underwear bomber and we go completely nuts. By definition the best way to prevent mass casualties from a successful terrorist attack is to prevent the attack. That is done by some combination of security procedures and counter-terrorism intelligence. Where the risk is higher there will be more security procedures. One clear security procedure for railcars of TIH chemicals is keeping the cars unnecessarily out of urban areas, re-routing. The key there is the term ‘unnecessarily’; the political process will never keep all TIH railcars out of urban areas. Just look at the fight in and around Chicago about the re-routing efforts by the Canadian National railroad and the fight they are having with the non-urban areas on the new routes. There is certainly an argument to be made that urban areas are better equipped to deal with an accidental release (which are usually non-catastrophic) of TIH from rail cars than are smaller jurisdictions. And the accidental releases are much more common than the terrorist attack. Even with a terrorist attack, the multi-story buildings of an urban area are better protection against a chlorine release because the density of the gas keeps the cloud low to the ground. Lacking the prevention of the successful terrorist attack, the best way to reduce casualties from such an attack is a well thought out, exercised and implanted emergency response plan. While LERC’s may do an adequate job of coordinating this type planning for fixed sites, I really doubt that there is anywhere near an adequate amount of work being done on transportation incidents. Some of the railroads are actually doing their part with their training efforts and their tracking of TIH rail cars, but much more remains to be done. Finally, the one woefully lacking area of emergency response is the capability to handle a real mass casualty situation. If most of the people in the Twin Towers had been injured instead of killed outright, the handling of casualties would have been a major embarrassment; and New York is better equipped than most cities to handle mass casualties. If a VBIED went off at a high-school football game in rural Texas, most of the resulting deaths would have been preventable, if adequate health care emergency response were available. In short, I would have to answer Fred that I am not confident that we have the tools in place to reduce the deaths from a mass casualty terrorist attack; regardless if it is an industrial chemical attack, a multiple shooter attack, or a VBIED attack.

1 comment:

Red Team said...

"In short, I would have to answer Fred that I am not confident that we have the tools in place to reduce the deaths from a mass casualty terrorist attack"

This is a fairly subjective statement. How do you compare what is reduced and what is not. What are we comparing it to? Just a thought.

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