A shooting that left one dead and five others wounded on a Greyhound bus in California last week highlights an unfortunate reality about security on buses and trains: It’s all but nonexistent.
Anyone determined to carry out an attack on ground transportation faces few, if any, security roadblocks.
While passengers boarding commercial airplanes at airports faces a host of security measures ranging from body scans and spot interrogations to pat-downs and checks of their shoes, that’s not the case at train stations and bus depots.
The Transportation Security Administration was established in 2001 to fix security holes that allowed for the 9/11 attacks, with a mandate to check 100% of baggage through airports.
That level of security would be impossible on the country’s sprawling bus and rail lines.
More than 70,000 buses operate on 230,000 miles of roadways, according to the American Public Transportation Association. Even if money could be found to pay for metal detectors at bus stations, it would be impossible to have them at every stop along a route, security experts say.
In the four years after the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, some U.S. lawmakers complained that way too little federal money was spent on ground transit security compared with what was spent on airports.
Then-U.S. Rep. David Obey, a Wisconsin Democrat, estimated that $22 billion had gone into airline security in those years, while less than $550 million went to security for buses, trains, subways and ferries combined.
There’s no indication those spending gaps have closed. That’s true even though vastly more people get on a bus, train or subway than on planes each day. More than 30 million Americans use some form of ground transit daily, compared with around 2 million who fly.
There’s likewise no indication federal officials will ever consider making pat-downs, body scans and metal detectors as ubiquitous at bus and train depots as they are at airports.
“We don’t intend to roll out anything like what we have in the airports. We are satisfied at this point,” Transportation Security Administration Administrator David Pekoske said in 2017.
TSA’s mandate does include security on all the nation’s transportation networks. But the vast majority of the TSA’s more than 43,000 security officers work at the over 400 U.S. airports. TSA efforts beyond airports often take the form of partnerships, advice and federal grants.
States and municipalities assume more responsibility for their local bus or subway systems, and there’s little uniformity nationwide.
The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority together with TSA officials announced in 2018 that it would become the first mass transit system in the U.S. to install screening equipment that scans passengers for weapons and explosives. The TSA has deployed response teams that have done spot baggage checks on city subway systems, including in Chicago.
“It’s largely to create the perception that there is an active security program more than a realistic chance of catching someone,” Joseph Schwieterman, a transportation expert and economics professor at DePaul University in Chicago, told The Associated Press. “They want anyone thinking of carrying a gun into the system to think twice.”
That’s not a likely train of thought for someone contemplating an attack.
Given the temper of the times, Americans should be demanding more than “perceptions” of security from the Transportation Security Administration.