The bomb blasts on the Delhi-Attari Samjhauta Express are chilling reminders that plugging the security gaps in our transportation systems is one of the most challenging tasks ahead. Investigators have recovered suitcases intact at the site that contained improvised explosive devices and plastic bottles of kerosene and petrol mixed with strips of cloth, probably to prolong the blaze. This may provide a forensic trail of fingerprints, explosives used, and detonators, that will hopefully lead to the perpetrators. The lack of security — perceived or otherwise — that led to this terror strike is too serious to be glossed over and it’s time to wonder if rail security is being shortchanged because of the emphasis elsewhere on airline security.
Unfortunately, the sprawling nature of road, rail, and subway services makes them very difficult to protect. Rail tracks traverse thousands of miles in densely populated cities and remote mountain locations, have many bridges and tunnels and are particularly soft targets. Terrorists use the numerous entrances and multiple tracks of busy railway (and bus stations) to appear out of the woodwork, melt in the crowd, and spread mayhem. If there was closed circuit TV surveillance on the platform of the Old Delhi station from which the ‘Peace Train’ left, it would have helped investigators identify suspects carrying suitcases similar to those recovered. Authorities should start testing new anti-terror tools at major transport hubs in the country as soon as possible. The screening technology, still popular with security agencies, may not be the most effective way to protect long distance and metro trains. In fact, it’s doubtful if even its advanced versions have improved airport security to any great extent. Also, police would then have to search a much higher percentage of passengers to deter or apprehend a potential terrorist.
A better bet perhaps would be to install more walk-through machines that detect explosives, bomb-resistant trashcans, and have regular patrolling by personnel specially trained in biohazards and explosives, and random searches by sniffer dogs. At the end of the day, however, the best defence is still a combination of alert passengers, good intelligence, and safety measures that could be put in place based on that.