Sunday, May 17, 2015

Trains are Indefensible

I remember as a kid watching "Lawrence of Arabia" where he led Arab raiding parties against the Turkish train lines in WW1.  Per this PBS article about Lawrence:
With the Ottoman army spread thinly across the empty vastness of the Arabian Peninsula, the Hejaz Arabs found it relatively easy to strike and sabotage Turkish lines of communication and supply. With the Red Sea firmly in British hands, the Turks had no option but to use the Hejaz railway to move their men, supplies and munitions.  
Lawrence and the Arabs spent much of their two years on the road to Damascus destroying sections of the railway. Small units of men laid charges on the track. Then as the Turks defended the track, Lawrence's men formed large moving columns capable of rapid hit-and-run operations. 
In the recent train crash in the East Coast there are discussions of a "projectile" hitting the train and distracting the conductor.  While this hasn't been confirmed, it is relevant to consider how difficult it would be to secure train lines from attack or sabotage.

This discussion is much more relevant in the context of "high speed trains".  There is a broad theme among many that the US is behind because we have not invested large sums of public money in high speed trains, that we are "falling behind".  Per wikipedia the Japanese high speed trains (similar to the Chinese high speed trains) typically have more than 1000 passengers on each of their trains.

The USA has far larger distances than the Japanese trains.  If you built a train from Chicago to New York, for example, it would be almost 800 miles long.  This is for a single rail line.  Obviously to connect the major cities of the USA you'd have thousands of miles of train lines.

How would these train lines be defended?  It would be easy for a terrorist to just cut through the fence somewhere and park a cement truck on the tracks, for instance.  The ensuing carnage would easily accomplish what 5-10 hijackings could accomplish.

If you think that the Homeland Security plans are over-reaching, just wait to see what it would take to defend hundreds or thousands of miles of track.  Instead of having a bottleneck at the airport, the entire line would be a potential point of attack.  Even if defenses were erected, they would only have to overwhelm them at a single weak link in order to assault the train.

No one is incorporating this into their cost estimates for high speed trains; they likely have fences and barriers but are not contemplating stopping a determined, armed attack by terrorists.  They should, because after one such attack a giant post-hast effort would emerge kind of like our early days of the TSA.  They should contemplate and include a giant, armed, unionized Federal bureaucracy in their midst and add this into their cost estimates and see how it compares against highways and aircraft.  The numbers, already dubious, would then be far, far in the red.

Cross posted at Chicago Boyz

1 comment:

Gerry from Valpo said...

Having been a daily urban/suburban commuter for over 35 years local commuter rail is well worth maintaining.

That being said the rail users should bear the greater portion of the maintenance cost since non users gain little benefit. When comparing the cost of driving to Chicago daily with fuel, tolls and parking a higher public transit fee is a no-brainer.

Damn gummint should pinching from the fuel taxes to pay for rail transit and then claim the highway fund is going broke.

AMTRAK? High Speed Rail? Don't get me started.