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High-Speed Rail’s Weak Link Is Security

• May 04, 2011 • 4:00 AM

Keeping trains safe and keeping trains moving has been a balancing act in Germany, and so far all the weights are on the side of no waiting.

One of Germany’s busiest high-speed rail routes is the link between Hamburg and Berlin. I’ve been using it for months. On the days when I need to be in Hamburg, I roll out of bed around dawn, shuffle through Berlin before traffic starts and find a seat on the train just in time to scowl out the window over a cup of mediocre coffee.

Ninety minutes later I’m in Hamburg. The trip takes three hours by car.

When Deutsche Bahn renovated the 160-mile stretch in 2004 to allow the current speeds, it wiped out the market for business flights, just as a good high-speed rail corridor in California could end shuttle-flight service from San Diego (or even San Francisco) to Los Angeles. The savings in carbon emissions and overall hassle are terrific. But the crucial reason it competes so well with short-haul flights is that German trains involve no security lines.

Simplicity is the best part of rail travel, and President Obama likes to say that American high-speed trains will involve no shoe checks. But Obama has his critics, and an expensive new high-speed line might look as tempting to an expansionist Transportation Safety Authority as to terrorists. So the question is worth some thought. [class name="dont_print_this"]

European Dispatch

Michael Scott Moore complements his standing feature in Miller-McCune magazine with frequent posts on the policy challenges and solutions popping up on the other side of the pond.


Lax security in other countries with good high-speed trains, like France and Spain, will make fodder for another column, but Germany is interesting because its lack of dedicated high-speed corridors makes total security impossible. Fast trains are so well integrated into the national rail network that you don’t always know when you’ve wandered onto one. A scanner line for high-speed rail would mean a scanner line for the whole train station, which is hugely impractical. So Germany doesn’t bother.

But nobody bombs the longer-haul trains. Why?

It’s not because officials don’t care. Europeans have lived with terrorism for decades, and they knew about airline and disco bombings long before Americans invented the TSA. Berlin’s minor contribution to the NATO force in Afghanistan has made Germany in particular a very public target for al-Qaeda, and the death of Osama bin Laden could set European sleeper cells in motion, if the more colorful WikiLeaks documents on Guantánamo can be trusted.

And it’s not that rail lines haven’t been targeted, but those have been focused on high-volume, quick-entry quick exit metro systems. The subway systems in Madrid and in London were both hit by coordinated terror blasts that killed 56 and 191 people, respectively.

German rail security is a question of surveillance. Uniformed walking patrols cover some of the trains and all the major stations; security cameras cover the platforms. It isn’t airtight, but it works. Even after two young Lebanese men left dud bombs on two separate trains in Germany in 2006, Deutsche Bahn officials said it would be impractical to search all rail baggage.

Also on, how the idea of high speed rail died in Texas while thriving in Spain during the 1980s.

When some conservatives responded by saying surveillance cameras should also be installed in public toilets, a commissioner in charge of data protection said a move like that would be “alarming on constitutional grounds.” A leading Green politician named Hans-Christian Ströbele said, “It’s been proven for a long time that video surveillance of public spaces doesn’t eliminate danger.” And that was pretty much that.

The difference between America and Europe, at the moment, is that security theater carries no political reward in Europe: No mainstream politician wants to inconvenience a lot of voters for security that will never be airtight. Europeans have lived with bustling, open-plan train stations for centuries; they know the odds. In America, though, good rail travel stands to become something new and unknown — all over again! — and if U.S. politicians start crowing for airline-style security theater, the trains’ usefulness will vanish.

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Michael Scott Moore
Michael Scott Moore was a 2006-2007 Fulbright fellow for journalism in Germany, and The Economist named his surf travelogue, "Sweetness and Blood," a book of the year in 2010. His first novel, "Too Much of Nothing," was published by Carroll & Graf in 2003, and he’s written about politics and travel for The Atlantic Monthly, Slate, the Los Angeles Times, and Spiegel Online in Berlin, where he serves as editor-at-large.

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