Lawmakers question rail safety after Paris attack

Lawmakers question rail safety after Paris attack

Lawmakers in the House are raising questions about U.S. rail security after a thwarted attack by a heavily armed gunman on a high-speed train in Europe.

On the same day three Americans who stopped a gunman on a train from Amsterdam to Paris were praised at the White House by President Obama, lawmakers questioned whether a similar incident could occur on a U.S. railway.

"With the recent attempt by a terrorist on a high-speed rail in Europe to take multiple lives, we are more cognizant than ever of the vulnerability of our public transportation infrastructure," Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) said during a House hearing on Thursday. 

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"Passengers were fortunate to have among them four brave Americans — including two members of America’s armed forces — who reacted swiftly and bravely to take down the Islamist extremist who, armed with a rifle and ample ammunition, intended to take as many innocent lives as possible that day," he continued. "But the odds are when the next would-be terrorist attacks passengers on a train or subway, the public may not be so fortunate as to have such capable and selfless persons on board and ready to react." 

King's comments came during a joint hearing of the the House's Transportation Security and Intelligence and Counterterrorism subcommittees that was called after the Paris rail attack in August. 

The attack on Paris commuter railway was thwarted by U.S. residents who were vacationing in Europe when they encountered the gunman on the train. The suspect, Moroccan citizen Ayoub El Khazzani, 26, had just fired upon a passenger and was attempting to use his AK-47.

The incident prompted lawmakers to call for the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to boost its presence on U.S. railways, which the agency did just before the Labor Day holiday, when travel rates are high

Lawmakers said during the hearing this week that the same thing that draws passengers to train travel makes it attractive to potential terrorists. 

"The easy access to rail transportation is one of the features that make it so popular," said King, who is chairman of the House Intelligence and Counterterrorism Subcommittee. 

"Compared with air travel, most of us individually appreciate the relative ease of using subways like the Metro here in DC or MTA in New York, or commuter rail, such as the MARC train in Maryland or the Long Island Railroad," he continued. "Everyone values and enjoys simple and easy access. However, we have seen the vulnerability inherent in easy access in most mass transit services, including in attacks in London, Mumbai, Madrid, Tokyo, and now in Paris." 

TSA officials told the panel that they work with officials from Amtrak and other domestic railways and transit systems to ensure that passengers are safe. 

"On the passenger rail side, TSA and Amtrak partner on programs such as Regional Alliance Including Local, State and Federal Efforts (RAILSAFE) to deter terrorist activity through unpredictable security activities," TSA Office of Security Policy and Industry Engagement Assistant Administrator Eddie Mayenschein told the panel in testimony submitted ahead of the hearing. 

"This program also incorporates other rail, transit, and local law enforcement agencies and involves counterterrorism activities such as increased station and right of way patrols, greater security presence on trains and at stations, explosive detection sweeps using canine teams, and random passenger bag inspections," he continued. 

Amtrak Police Chief Polly Hanson told lawmakers that the company maintains a large police force to deter potential terrorist attacks. 

"The Amtrak Police Department consists of more than 500 members based in 30 locations," she said, though she admitted "it really wasn’t until after September 11 that counter-terrorism because a large focus of our security plans." 

Lawmakers said the Paris rail incident showed the need to do even more to prevent potential train attacks in the U.S. 

"The heroic actions of those four men; Mark Moogalian, a teacher originally from Midlothian, VA; Anthony Sadler, a senior at Sacramento State University; Air Force Airman 1st Class Spencer Stone and Oregon Army National Guard Specialist Alek Skarlatos, saved countless lives," said Rep. John KatkoJohn Michael KatkoProgressive group unveils first slate of 2020 congressional endorsements Democratic lawmakers call on Judiciary Committee to advance 'revenge porn' law Katie Hill resignation reignites push for federal 'revenge porn' law MORE (R-N.Y.), the chairman of the House's Transportation Security Subcommittee. 

"However, it is our responsibility to the American people to do all that we can to defend them against such heinous acts, and the American people should not be put in a position requiring them to defend their lives while riding a train, subway or bus to vacation, commute to work or simply run an errand," he continued.