Monday, November 06, 2017

Policing California’s high-speed rail

Written by  Ryan Shackleford, California Highway Patrol, Command College Class 57, for Railway Age
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Editor’s note: Ryan Shackleford is a law enforcement Captain with the California Highway Patrol. In 2015, he completed an 18-month program called Command College. To graduate, Shackleford was required to produce a written body of work on an emerging issue that he studied during development of a Futures Portfolio. His topic was on California’s under-construction high-speed rail system and terrorism safety concerns. This article has been edited for Railway Age:

This article is based on research conducted as a part of the CA POST (Peace Officer Standards and Training) Command College. It is a futures study of a particular emerging issue of relevance to law enforcement. Its purpose is not to predict the future; rather, to project a variety of possible scenarios useful for planning and action in anticipation of the emerging landscape facing policing organizations.

This article was created using the futures forecasting process of Command College and its outcomes. Managing the future means influencing it—creating, constraining and adapting to emerging trends and events in a way that optimizes the opportunities and minimizes the threats of relevance to the profession.

The views and conclusions expressed in the Command College Futures Project and this article are mine, and are not necessarily those of the CA Commission on POST.

California’s high-speed rail (HSR) system, capable of speeds in excess of 200 mph, will traverse numerous counties throughout the state. The creation of HSR opens opportunities for commerce and the transport of people across significant distances. It also creates a number of challenges for the law enforcement agencies [of the communities] through which it passes. Imagine the following:

“Months after the HSR became operational, a northbound train carrying 300 eager travelers destined for San Francisco was derailed. Traveling 190 mph, one-tenth of a mile from crossing I-5, a large explosion near the front of the train caused the lead engine to decouple from the first passenger car, setting into motion a series of events that would tax investigator and rescuer resources and cripple the system for years to come. After four passenger cars toppled onto I-5, a previously stolen commercial vehicle transporting 5,000 gallons of hazardous material was intentionally driven into the scene, making a bad situation far worse.”

Although fictional, this is one of many scenarios for which planners must prepare. In 2015, those plans include what agencies will share jurisdiction, issues of intentional or accidental damage to the rail system, and the safety of all who use, or are affected by, HSR.


The history of California HSR dates to the 1980s, but it was not until 2008 when it became a ballot measure and was passed by a majority of voters. In 2014, initial construction began on the first segment of the system, between Fresno and Madera. By 2022, the initial segment is expected connect Madera to the San Fernando Valley. By 2029, the system is expected to run from San Francisco to the Los Angeles basin in under three hours at speeds capable of more than 200 mph. Eventually, the system should expand to San Diego and Sacramento, and be comprised of 800 miles of track.

Such a large system will challenge overall law enforcement oversight and coordination. It will run through many jurisdictions that vary dramatically in size. When completed, the system will contain more than 20 stations, each of which will have their own safety concerns. Who [polices] a station will be largely determined by local officials. On the trains, another agency will likely provide police services. The question of who will be the agency or agencies with these responsibilities has yet to be answered. Should an attack occur, there will be one lead agency responsible for investigations. Who that will be remains to be seen.


How law enforcement will police California’s HSR in the future depends on several factors, and there are existing models of transit law enforcement that can inform the choice of who best to police HSR. BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) employs sworn officers to ride on trains, walk platforms and thwart or investigate crimes. That agency encompasses several cities and counties. In Southern California, Los Angeles Sheriff Deputies police Metrolink, which encompasses many different cities and counties. The agency selected for California HSR will be responsible for an even larger jurisdiction.

At its onset, that agency will have a level of new responsibilities, and must consider development of policies, hiring of law enforcement officers and support staff and creation of operating procedures. The potential for a criminal act to occur on a new, expensive and controversial project may be increased. In such an event, law enforcement will be challenged to identify where the crime was committed. Further, if a crime is committed in one city or county but not identified until a final destination, potential complications could occur such as county of prosecution. Because of its statewide footprint, with resources and personnel in every county, the California Highway Patrol may be a natural fit. As HSR becomes closer to being operational, agency selection will be critical. One thing is certain: The agency selected will have safety as its primary focus.


The Mineta Transportation Institute conducts research and focuses on multi-modal surface transportation policy. In a 2013 report, it was found security should be focused on train stations and on rail right-of-way (ROW). Many deliberate attempts to derail train traffic occur at areas where no grade separation exists. As much of California’s HSR is designed to be grade separated, security focus should be centered on right-of-way (ROW). There should be a form of guardrail in place to minimize the possibility of a train falling off a bridge or other structure and causing further damage. According to the Mineta Institute, rails should be welded. Tampering detection systems should be installed, and the ROW should be fenced, monitored and patrolled. Signaling systems should use software unable to be tampered with by cyber terrorists. Empty “sweeper” trains precede revenue passenger trains are useful to detect rail tampering. Finally, staff and employees should be trained to recognize signs of terrorism.

According to Jenkins, et al (2013), “While transportation security clearly has improved since 9/11, the basic inventory of security measures and best practices has changed little since 2001, although there have been improvements and refinements in security measures” (see According to that report, the following are best practices:

• Threat analysis continues to play a strong role in rail security.

• Random security screening, where oftentimes a K-9 accompanies an officer is crucial.

• Explosive detection is constantly being improved, with slow progress toward remote, or “standoff,” detection.

Some of these practices have been implemented in large urban areas such as New York, Boston and Los Angeles.

In addition to the human elements of safety assessment, there are two related factors to rail safety: surveillance and the physical layout of facilities.

There have been significant improvements in surveillance and CCTV where sophisticated software can alert law enforcement to suspicious activities. The use of canine teams is critical to explosive detection. Canines are now taught the practice known as Vapor Wake Detection. These canines can detect the scent of explosives in the air after an object has left an area. Paul Waggoner, a researcher and associate director with the Canine Detection Research Institute, said the Vapor Wake program is enhancing an inherent ability. “Nature has built them to sample,” Waggoner said. “They come naturally equipped to track that odor to its source” (Enoch, 2013). In addition to the monitoring of locations, and screening of individuals using the HSR, planners should first attend to the physical layout of HSR facilities.

Train stations should be designed in large open areas with good lighting and with clear lines of visibility for cameras and security personnel. There should be areas designated for random security checks and no spaces for objects to be hidden. Walls and elevators should be transparent as well, using glass or similar materials. Trash containers should be bomb-resistant, and the ventilation should have fans that are reversible so that a space can be ventilated properly in the event of smoke or toxic fumes.

Within stations, passenger screening protocols should be in place. These should be tested for legality, and also to what the public will tolerate. Measures can’t be inconvenient to the point where passengers choose other methods of transit, but also remain adequate to ensure passenger safety. Explosive detection canine teams on platforms and within the station will deter criminality and help ensure safety. An “If You See Something, Say Something” campaign targeted toward riders will help educate them as well as workers. Such campaigns are used in other transit programs. They encourage riders to report suspicious activity to law enforcement. Finally, there should be armed officers who participate in random patrol.

To disrupt a terrorist attack, all law enforcement agencies must work in a coordinated effort. “Some security challenges are common to passenger and freight rail systems, such as the funding of security improvements, the interconnectivity of the rail system, and the number of stakeholders involved in rail security” (Guerrero, 2004, p. 1). With the high number of stakeholders, coordination involving California as well as national rail system stakeholders will play a key role in helping prevent a terrorist attack. Fortunately, there are existing protocols to help establish practices for HSR.

In 2010, Amtrak developed Operation RAILSAFE in partnership with the New York City Police Department and the Transportation Security Administration. Working with TSA personnel and law enforcement officers from federal, state, local, railroad and transit agencies, Amtrak police deploy at passenger rail and transit stations, and along the ROW, to exercise counterterrorism and incident response capabilities. This coordinated effort involves activities such as heightened station and ROW patrols, increased security presence on board trains, explosives detection canine sweeps, random passenger bag inspections, and counter-surveillance. The program includes a training protocol that provides participating agencies with information on how to make rail safer in the U.S. and Canada. The California High-Speed Rail Authority’s participation in the program will help ensure the safety and integrity of the system as well as help properly train stakeholders in rail safety.


California’s HSR system is large and controversial, and could attract the attention of those who wish to disrupt it. Any large-scale event will be publicized, and that publicity may attract further groups. Some groups may wish to further their cause or agenda by stopping a train or preventing it from departing a station. In that scenario, the interruption of service could have detrimental impacts on operation and law enforcement, or it could be a minor inconvenience aimed at gaining publicity, much like recent protesters who walk on highways. On the other end of the spectrum, terrorists could aim to create actual fear by causing a train to derail or by tampering with electronic systems to cause a collision, which could cause injuries and fatalities.

As noted in the Mineta Report, there were 32 deaths in 33 incidents on high-speed rail worldwide. During the same period, there were 1,283 attacks on non-high-speed rail worldwide (Jenkins, Kozub, Butterworth, Haider, Clair, 2013). For instance, in March 2004, 10 explosions occurred on four Madrid commuter trains that resulted in the death of 192 people and injuries to more than 1,800 (Kassam, 2014). Because California’s project is politically sensitive and groups have worked vigorously to stop it, it may be a high-value target.

Agencies must plan responsibly for an attack. Stakeholders must train together and plan together. Interoperable radio communication systems will be required to help ensure safety of the system. Such planning includes conducting exercises that simulate an attack. Disaster on the HSR would further challenge a response in a remote region. Proper plans are essential to rapidly mitigate an incident.


At some point in the future, the State of California should be operating an HSR network. Whatever agency is chosen to provide these services, rail safety must be the primary focus and concern for all entities involved. That agency will likely have responsibility for general law enforcement duties on board trains with the focus of passenger safety and wellbeing. Money will be of concern, so HSR planners will need to properly fund said agency. Also of primary concern will be terrorism and how the implementation of HSR will challenge law enforcement’s ability to fight it.

As was witnessed in 2013 in Santiago, Spain, HSR accidents can result in high passengers fatality and injury rates to. While that accident was truly an accident, it makes very clear why terrorists target trains and high-speed rail. California’s HSR must employ the highest and most technologically advanced security measures to deter attacks. For HSR to function, passengers must feel safe riding it and the system must be a safe travel option to ensure its long-term vitality and provide value to the community.


Employee Awareness Guidelines (n.d). Retrieved April 29, 2015.

Enoch, E. (2013). Auburn University researchers: Dogs in Vapor Wake program ideal for tracking explosives in crowds. Alabama Media Group. Retrieved from

Guerrero, P. J. (2004). Rail Security: Some Actions Taken to Enhance Passenger and Freight Rail Security, but Significant Challenges Remain: GAO-04-598T. GAO Reports, 1.

High-Speed Rail Program Fact Sheets. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Jenkins, B. M., Kozub, C., Butterworth, B.R., Haider, R., Clair, J-F., (2013). Formulating a Strategy for Securing High-Speed Rail in the United States. MTI Report 12-03. Mineta Transportation Institute.

Kassam, A. (2014, March 9). Madrid bombing victims still struggling ten years on. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Operation Railsafe (n.d) Retrieved April 29, 2015.

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