al-Qaida but one transport terrorist threat

May 6, 2011

The news media may be atwitter with concerns of an al-Qaida attack on trains, but there is no validation that any specific attack is imminent or has been planned.

What is crucial is that each of us — whether we work for an air, bus, freight train, transit or passenger train operator — remains alert, observant and prepared to report whatever appears out of the ordinary around yards, terminals and rights-of-way.

This is a meaningful reminder to review with fellow workers and supervisors your carrier’s procedures for reporting safety and security concerns.

If you have not heard or read the news, intelligence gathered from the Pakistan compound where Osama bin Laden was killed indicates al-Qaida had considered — but not necessarily planned — a terrorist attack on trains this coming Sept. 11, which will be the 10th anniversary of 9/11.

The New York Times reports it “confirmed” that documents obtained from the bin Laden compound “include a discussion of tampering with tracks to derail a train on a bridge.” But the newspaper added, “There was no evidence of a specific plot.”

Terrorist threats are not limited to al-Qaida, and domestic terrorism also is a possibility.

In October 1995, two locomotives and eight cars of Amtrak’s Sunset Limited derailed near Palo Verde, Ariz., on Southern Pacific (now Union Pacific) tracks, with four cars tumbling 30-feet from a trestle bridge into a dry river bed, killing a sleeping car attendant and injuring 78 passengers.

The FBI said sabotage likely was the cause, finding the rails had been shifted out of position and the track circuit closed to prevent signals from alerting the operating crew.

That act of terrorism was similar to one in 1939 in Carlin, Nev., which killed 24 passengers aboard the City of San Francisco passenger train operating over Southern Pacific track.

Neither the 1995 nor 1939 act of sabotage was solved by law enforcement.

The Department of Homeland Security said May 5, “We have no information of any imminent terrorist threat to the U.S. rail sector. We want to stress that this alleged al-Qaida plotting is based on initial reporting, which is often misleading or inaccurate and subject to change.”

New organizations also report that other materials found at the bin Laden compound indicate a desire to target major mass-transit hubs, similar to attacks that have occurred in India, Spain and the United Kingdom.