Monday, June 21, 2010

Railroad Security

Thanks to an article at I read a recent report by the Teamsters Union that looks at railroad security from an interesting perspective, that of the people that drive the trains and maintain the railroad tracks. While these people are certainly not security experts, their responses to the two different surveys included in this report provide an interesting look at indicators of how extensively the railroads are implementing their security measures.

Now anyone with a basic knowledge of statistics knows that there are limitations on the conclusions that can be drawn about the security program of any specific railroad from the surveys that were the basis for this report. A real assessment of their security would have to be conducted by an unaffiliated outside agency with standardized sets of measurements against established security standards. Unfortunately, there are no such assessments being made, so survey results like those included in this report are all that we have to go on.

The report acknowledges that the railroad industry has taken significant efforts to improve their security since the last survey that the Teamsters undertook in 2005. The report notes that the industry has “expanded security patrols, security training, electronic surveillance, access controls and operates a 24/7 Operations Center” (pg 4). Whether or not these efforts have been effective in reducing the possibility of a successful terrorist attack on railroads is the important question that this report attempts to answer.

Question Wording 

One of the key requirements for a ‘good’ survey is that the questions have to be clear in their intent. A vague question can draw responses that point to different meanings to different responders. Some of the questions in this survey were very vague. For example they asked members of the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers and Trainmen (BLET) (pg 10):
“Was the rail yard access secure today?” “Was the equipment access secure today?”
Without a common definition of ‘secure’ the response to these questions could mean a wide variety of things to different people. Even when taking that into consideration the responses to those questions point to a wide spread dissatisfaction with the effectiveness of security measures; the overwhelming response (92% and 86% respectively) is that these areas were not adequately secured.

Question Order 

Even the order that questions are asked can have an important affect on how one can interpret the responses. The two different surveys used similar questions in differing orders to look at the presence of security officers. The BLET survey asked (pg 13):
“Was there a visible rail police presence in the yard today?” “Was today a heightened terrorist alert day?”
The BMWED (Brotherhood of Maintenance of Way Employees Division) survey asked (pg 14):
“Was today a heightened terrorist alert day?” “If yes, were there additional security personnel on duty in the yard or on locomotive?”
The response to the BLET survey tells us something about general rail police security presence (93% said ‘no’) while the BMWED responses only tells us about that security presence on days when there was a heightened alert level (98% said no). The reduction in sample size for the second question is not addressed.

BTW: There was an interesting bit of information about the effectiveness of terror threat level communication produced in the responses to the ‘heightened terrorist alert’ questions; a large number of responders did not know if there was a heightened threat level (58% and 47% respectively) on the day they answered the survey questions.

Employee Observations 

There were a large number of sanitized comments from individual employees included in the report. The report writers are to be commended for their well documented editing to remove information that would allow someone to identify specific locations where security issues were identified. This serves to both protect the facilities and to prevent identification of personnel making negative comments about their employers.

While adding color commentary to the discussion, these comments were entirely one-sided (critical of security) and did not significantly add to the discussion of the overall security of the industry. These apocryphal reports could be significant to local facilities, but I would expect that the Teamsters’ leadership would be less than willing to share that level of information, fearing potential retaliation on the individuals making the comments.

Deserves Consideration 

This report is an important, if somewhat flawed, look at railroad security issues. The report certainly indicates that there are a wide variety of problems with the security at railroad facilities across the country. The problems identified deserve consideration by congressional committees responsible for both homeland security and transportation safety.

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