WHEN a bomb exploded on a crowded Moscow metro train on February 6, killing around 40 people and injuring many more, the International Union of Public Transport was quick to point out that ’the metro is the world’s safest transport mode’.

UITP highlighted an increase in terrorist attacks on public transport since the mid-1980s and drew attention to the need for metros and other operators to be alert and prepared for possible attacks. Secretary General Hans Rat stressed that ’the awareness of the sector of terrorism threats and potential preventative measures must be improved’.

Suggested measures cover organisational issues such as co-operation with the police, staff training and use of information technologies for surveillance and detection, for example to detect ’abnormal situations’, as well as ’a permanent human presence to allow swift intervention at any time’.

Even before the Moscow bomb, the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security in the USA were warning again about possible attacks there. A bulletin issued on January 28 said that ’recent intelligence indicates a continued terrorist interest in conducting attacks on US subways and railways. Although the FBI possesses no information indicating a specific threat to subways and rail systems in the United States, the potential for an attack cannot be ruled out.’

The bulletin reminded operators that ’public rail transportation is highly accessible, making critical assets such as signalboxes and communication lines vulnerable and difficult to protect’, adding that ’attacks on rail systems require less planning, training and materials than attacks against large passenger aircraft or cruise ships, potentially increasing their attractiveness to a diminished Al Qaeda.’

Trains carrying all kinds of dangerous goods are given special attention in North America and elsewhere. The potential for disaster was dramatically underlined by a runaway train in Iran on February 18, where a set of wagons carrying a lethal cocktail of petrol, fertiliser and sulphur exploded after derailing at Neyshabur, west of Mashhad on the main line to Tehran, killing nearly 300 people. n