Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Amtrak Security Theater

There was a time when airline counter personnel asked passengers if they had their luggage under their full control all the time. Many people didn't (the luggage was left with the hotel for a while, for example), but everyone said "yes," lest they be subject to additional screening. It took years before this question was done away with, but for a decade or so, the question asked of all passengers was mere airline security theater -- worthless.

Enter Amtrak security theater. If you've taken a train lately in the east, you've heard the announcement that says that passengers may be subject to random identification checks under the authority of the Transportation Security Administration. These checks take place on the train, after the train has left the station. Checking passengers' IDs once they've boarded the train is worse than worthless: It's dangerous.

Here's why: Let's say you're a terrorist. An unarmed conductor asks for your ID. What do you do? You set off the bomb.

Once passengers are on the train, it's too late to check IDs.

And what if you're not a bad guy, but happen not to have your ID? Will they stop the train between Wilmington and Philadelphia and put you off the train? Or make you get off at the next stop, presumably under the threat of arrest?

Checking IDs might help ensure that the person who paid for the non-transferable ticket is the person using it. Oh, now I understand: Random ID checks have nothing to do with security, and everything to do with revenue, under the guise of making us more secure.


  1. RAH RAH for your points. I have one more, it's just another way for Big Brother to have utmost control over their flock. Never, ever question authority.

  2. Actually, I'm not sure this is accurate. I don't think the random ID check for security purposes is the check that happens on the train. They do check your ID on the train, but I think that's to ensure that you didn't steal someone's credit or ticket, that you signed your boarding card, etc. There do exist random security checks before you get on the train - I was subject to one last time I went to New York. Waiting at the gate were a few law enforcement officials. I was stopped, my luggage was opened and searched by hand, it was swiped for explosives, and they check my ID and boarding pass too - all at the gate before they let me through to the platform for the trains. Mind you, since it was a busy gate, had I had an explosive device, I could have taken out a lot of people right there, but that's the same as at an airport - security lines cause people to bunch up in one place. I must say this was the first time I had either seen or experienced it happening since, say, 9/11, and I travel on the train a few times a year. So, I'm not arguing that Amtrak has great security, but it does exist other than once you're on the train.

  3. The announcement that the conductor makes says that the random ID checks are being made under the authority of the Transportation Security Administration.

    But I agree with Maya: These checks probably have nothing to do with security and everything to do with revenue. Amtrak just wants to make sure that they don't lost out on ticket sales by somebody transferring their ticket to somebody else.

    Still, it's dangerous for Amtrak to perform this so-called ID check in the name of security. It also hurts Amtrak's credibility when it comes to security.

  4. Security Theatre is an excellent way to put it. The bottomline is in a democractic/free society, it is impossible to protect a transportation system like Amtrak or any other commuter rail service for that matter. Subways are a little easier due to the limited ingress/egress.

    We in the industry know this and wonder every day if today will be our last...Welcome to our world.....All Aboard?!

  5. I ride Amtrak all the time and only once have I been asked to show an ID. Why create a fuss over something that hardly ever happens?