Subways Step Up Security Against Bioterrorism : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

WIRE: 10/17/2001 9:53 am ET

Subways Step Up Security Against Bioterrorism

By Giles Elgood LONDON (Reuters) - Subway operators are stepping up security as fears of germ warfare grow, but experts say underground railways remain a proven vulnerable target for bioterrorists bent on wreaking havoc.

High-tech devices that can sense danger are being tested on some U.S. subway systems, while European networks are turning to fluorescent jackets and evacuation drills to instill confidence.

"There is only so much we can do," said Maria Adolsson of Stockholm's transport authority. "You just can't search everyone who goes in."

A spate of anthrax scares following the discovery of the deadly toxin in the United States has mostly been linked to mail, but scientists have long pointed out that utilities such as subway systems are also at risk.

The 1995 nerve gas attack on the Tokyo subway by members of the Aum Supreme Truth doomsday cult, which killed 12 people and made 6,000 ill, was widely regarded as a wake-up call.

Secret experiments in London and New York in the 1950s and 1960s showed that the tunnels of an underground railway can easily spread spores such as anthrax over long distances.

And in 1998, a paper published by the Potomac Institute in Washington concluded that, "It is through the underground transport system that a terrorist or rogue nation may find the easiest means to attack the cities of the United States."

Sensors that can detect a chemical or biological attack on a subway are still at test stage, with experiments under way in Boston and set to begin in Washington.

The Washington Metro, which has stops near the White House, the Capitol and the Pentagon, is preparing to test what it calls a revolutionary system for detecting chemical attacks.

Sensors would detect toxic chemicals, map contaminated zones and predict where hazardous gases might spread.

"September 11 has galvanized our determination, we are in the process of looking to acquire additional resources, looking into ways of accelerating it," a Metro official said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said it had asked the government for $190 million to fund extra security.

Other operators made clear they had little alternative to traditional means of combating security threats.

Police in Tokyo said they were working closely with subway operators to try to prevent a repeat of 1995 and had tightened security at subway stations since Sept. 11.


Monday, rumors swirled that the Tokyo subway might be subject to an unspecified attack, but nothing happened.

Subway operators in major European and North American cities said they were tightening security and stepping up police patrols. Passenger numbers around the world were generally not declining, perhaps because commuters have little choice.

Vigilance is being urged and evacuation plans have been dusted down, but there is a realization that complete security cannot be achieved.

"We have regular exercises covering a huge list of potential scenarios," said a spokeswoman for London's "Tube," the world's oldest subway network.

Evacuation drills were in place for all 274 stations. Kings Cross, one of the busiest, could be cleared in under 10 minutes.

Staff are wearing high-visibility waistcoats in order to reassure passengers by their presence, the spokeswoman said.

Boston's Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority, the oldest U.S. system, said it had prepared for biological, chemical and explosive attacks since 1998, when millennium fears emerged.

The T, as the city's subway is called, is testing a chemical sensor system. It is also working with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology on a biological sensing system.

"They know the sensors work in the labs. We're providing a working environment," said MBTA Police Chief Thomas O'Loughlin. "We've also incorporated training for our police on the issues around mass destruction."

But some passengers fear the scare-mongering could make an atrocity more likely.

"It appears that the media is virtually egging terrorists -- or anyone who doesn't like New York or New Yorkers -- to spread poison in the subway," one irate New York subway rider wrote in a message posted on an Internet bulletin board.

Copyright 2001 Reuters News Service. All rights reserved.

-- Martin Thompson (, October 17, 2001

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