Security on Europe′s trains a tricky task in wake of Thalys attack | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 24.08.2015
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Security on Europe's trains a tricky task in wake of Thalys attack

The question of safety on trains has come to the forefront after the foiled gun attack on the Thalys from Amsterdam to Paris. But implementing airport-style security on Europe's railway network is almost impossible.

Imagine trying to make half of Germany's citizens walk through some sort of security check on any given day. You'd have to scan about 40 million people. That's the same number of passengers who travel on Europe's rail networks every day, according to the "New York Times."

Most train stations in most European countries don't have any barriers. Non-ticket holders are free to enter and mix with passengers, and those about to board a train can bring whatever luggage they can carry without it going through a scanner. That means lots of people and many, many bags. Even without lengthy searches, a train station in a big German city like Frankfurt, Berlin or Cologne can get pretty chaotic during rush hour. Experts say implementing security checks like the ones in airports, for example, is hardly a feasible endeavor.

After a man shot at people with a Kalashnikov on the train from Amsterdam to Paris before being subdued by passengers on Friday evening, however, people are asking what could be done to make train travel more secure. In some Spanish train stations, luggage controls have been established in the wake of the Madrid terrorist bombings of commuter trains on March 11, 2004, which killed almost 200 people. The Eurostar high-speed train connecting the rest of Europe to London is the only one with airport-style security.

That's no coincidence: The United Kingdom isn't part of the Schengen zone, where residents of the 26 European member countries can travel freely and without showing ID. En route to London with the Eurostar, passengers need to arrive early and pass immigration officials as well as luggage checks.

The Schengen zone dilemma

Belgium's Prime Minister Charles Michel has called for similar controls in Thalys trains, which travel between Belgium, France, the Netherlands and Germany. Whether that could be done under the Schengen agreement remains a question.

A spokesman for the European Commission said that keeping the Schengen zone was "non-negotiable," but that there were "enough tools to increase the security inside our borders." He then called on the member states to use these tools, without specifying exactly what they were. Other European politicians like European Commissioner for Transport Violeta Bulc have also stressed that security is a focus.

German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere has been a bit more cautious. "We might have to watch train traffic a bit more closely in places where there's a higher threat potential," de Maiziere said on Sunday at an event in the western German city of Aachen.

One idea for making train travel more secure without implementing airport-style check-points is increasing the number of uniformed police in train stations. That's what the deputy head of the German Police Union (GdP) Jörg Radeck suggested.

No police on German trains

Jörg Radeck. (Photo: GdP/Immel)

Radeck: the police needs more personnel

"Being visible and present is how we make prevention work," Radeck told DW. "But right now, the personnel situation is very tight, what with police also having to accompany refugees on trains coming to Germany."

Radeck said the GdP had already this year asked the German government for 360 more jobs, but the government said no.

Currently, there are no police officers riding along on Deutsche Bahn (DB) trains apart from in exceptional circumstances where trouble may be expected, such as a large football match. The German train company does employ 3,700 security guards, but these are not men and women who would be prepared to stop an armed assailant, a DB spokesman told Deutsche Welle. They only carry pepper spray and a baton and walk with ticket inspectors on certain routes and during certain times. They can intervene in case a passenger is drunk or mouths off when he doesn't have a ticket.

The Bundespolizei, Germany's federal police force, believes that the country's trains are safe.

"The federal security authorities don't currently have any evidence for planned attacks on the railway traffic in Germany," a spokesman for the federal police said in a statement sent to DW. "The Bundespolizei, together with the state police forces and the train companies, provides for security on the tracks on a constantly high level."

Keeping a balance between security and freedom

Over-the-shoulder picture of a DB security guard. (Photo: Marius Becker dpa/lhe)

Deutsche Bahn's security guards are not intended to stop armed assailants

Some critics don't believe this and say Germany needs stricter checks in stations and on trains. Radeck, however, said that going down this path of ever-more controls was dangerous:

"We have to be careful not to put our free civil society at risk by implementing more and more technical measures."

He instead advocated for increasing the presence of uniformed police personnel in train stations, so people had someone to turn to, if for example they saw a child on the tracks or suspicious activity going on.

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