Wes Vernon Commentary
January 2011

Is Passenger Rail Security Possible?
(Also Metro Escalators, Part 2)

So now WMATA has started random inspections at Metrorail stations and bus stops.

Even though there have been intelligence reports of terrorist intentions to attack the Metro subway system, Metro officials say these plans have been in the making for some time.

But will they work?

Security on rail systems, especially passenger systems where (obviously) the greater number of human lives are likely to be at stake, seemingly has befuddled rail, law enforcement, and intelligence officials ever since 9/11.

It has been the subject of numerous seminars and think tank-style studies for years. A few years ago, a radio talkshow host emphatically advocated baggage/purse inspections similar to those at airports. (That was long before the ultra-intrusive airports scanning and pat-downs that have caused a firestorm of protest.)

Of course, because passenger trains serve multiple stops--especially commuter, light-rail, and subway traffic--that would create such a jam-up at station after station that it would soon amount to advocating the shut-down of passenger train services.

Pssst! Don't worry. It's a big secret

A year or two ago, a columnist told his readers how in a European country he witnessed a cool clever security system on the rails. It was so brilliant that it was invisible. You see, that was the genius of the system. It was so slick, he could not detect it.

So how did he know there was in fact an organized plan in place? The scribe assured us he had been told about it, but was sworn to secrecy. Well… uh… okay. If intelligence or rail officials really have a plan so efficient and so brilliant that no one can notice it, but they're willing to trust a foreign journalist with details… uh… okay, I guess.

The writer went on to laud those super intelligent Europeans as opposed to us blunderbuss Americans who probably couldn't detect a firecracker, let alone a bomb. (Not his exact words, but my interpretation of them.)


At one time, a former Amtrak president assured me that he had a security plan in place that was confidential and "which you won't notice," but it's there--really. (Okay, okay.)

Big brother?

The Metro moves have attracted the negative attention of the ACLU and a Montgomery County "civil rights" group who raise constitutional and privacy objections.

The WMATA plan may be an annoyance to some of those who are detained, though early reports indicate the inspections were brief and as unobtrusive as possible.

Effective? Let's hope we don't learn the hard way that maybe it isn't. Perhaps I, as a frequent Metro rider, have a false sense of security, but I'm not about to withhold approval of a Metro management that is at least answering the familiar call not to "just stand there, do something."

In the end

OK, let's stop dancing around the real issue here. A serious security effort on Metro, or at airports for that matter, would involve the dreaded word, "profiling." Maybe that is going on behind the scenes, even if its very effectiveness lies in the public's inability to detect it. Profiling by some other name? Why not? We apply idiotic euphemisms to tons of other things. The deep dark secret in Europe or Amtrak may be either undetected "profiling" or - nothing. It's the latter that can destroy one's sense of security. (Let's see now - umm - Oh, I know. 9/11 was committed by either the Beatles or the Sisters of Mercy - Right?)

Escalators Problem - Footnote

Last month in this space, we reviewed inside information from a well-placed source who concluded one (not necessarily the only) reason Metro's escalators were out of order so often was that workers who had that responsibility simply slacked on the job. Another knowledgeable source has supplied us with additional facts that indicate other circumstances (at least also) contributed to the escalator debacle:

During the Metro construction boom, he e-mails us, "the people Metro hired as elevator mechanics (same trade covers both elevators and escalators) quit once they were trained and got a little experience for much higher pay in the private sector. WMATA couldn't raise the pay to match the private sector because the union wouldn't agree to [give a] raise [to] that skill without raising the other equally skilled maintenance people. That's why they contracted out, but that was very expensive. I heard the same from both management and union sides. Since 2008, there's no problem finding skilled construction trades people who like the idea of a steady paycheck, but there's a massive, massive backlog of maintenance work."

The "meaning of it all"

In other words, Metro apparently was unwilling to take a strike (if necessary) in order to pay higher wages only to those workers whose skills were more marketable on the outside.

The other maintenance workers were also skilled, but their skills were not attracting the same demand on the private market. That may have been unfair, but life is unfair. I've worked at places where supervisors earned less money than employees who took orders from them. So what? It happens. Alas, everyone is not always "equal."

A solution?

Should Metro have called the union's bluff, and let it bear the public relations burden of calling a strike that would have put hundreds of employees out of work? And perhaps add to Metro's soaring construction costs, or maybe even threaten to shut down the construction. Would any labor union sacrifice all the jobs that would have been lost just to force "equal" pay for what--on the market, at least--was not equal work?

Spilled milk now. But since Metro is currently in the process of bringing on new board members and searching for new management, perhaps this would be a good time to focus on what has been advocated here and elsewhere for a long time: Bring on management with an impressive background of private sector experience and with some sense of how market forces work.

In the private sector, policies that lead to the sheer volume of complaints that have been heard from Metro's customers in recent months would not be tolerated… Happy New Year anyway.