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Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Alleged 'al-Qaeda-supported' plot against Via train thwarted

After a long day of studies, I ate dinner and settled down to watch Ken Burns' new documentary The Central Park Five (which I highly recommend).  Before I watched it, I noticed that the top story on the BBC involved Canada - this is never a good thing.  The only time Canada ever makes the BBC news is when the country has done something else stupid.  Apparently, a massive terror plot had been foiled.  I made a note to get details about it later.

Well, there was indeed a plot.  Apparently two men had plotted to blow up, or derail, depending on who was talking, a VIA train in the GTA.  According to some sources, the target was a train from Toronto to New York, which could only mean the VIA/Amtrak Maple Leaf, a train I rode several years ago.  There is little security on board, other than a passport check when you buy your ticket and then Homeland Security on the American side of the Border.  The Toronto Sun suggests that the explosion would have happened while the train was crossing the Whirlpool Bridge in Niagara Falls as the train crossed the border.

Here is the problem, according to CNN: "They watched trains and railways in the greater Toronto area."  I watch trains and railways in the greater Toronto area.

Since 9/11, it has become increasingly difficult for railway enthusiasts to freely enjoy watching trains.  Major stations are now essentially off-limits, cameras in subways make people nervous, rail yards are closed to visitors and police checks are more common.  I myself have been stopped by the police at least ten times, ranging from a few simple questions to an ID check.

In this age of super security and reversal of rights to protect us from an unseen threat, here are the potential 'doomsday' outcomes of this investigation:

  • Railfanning is made illegal: This would be difficult given the Charter implications, but photography could be made harder on private railway property and police could begin charging trackside photographers with loitering (or similar catch-all charges).
  • VIA Rail is deemed a security vulnerability and is cut: Secretly, I expect the federal government would like to cut VIA Rail anyway (especially considering their repeated budget cuts), but this would look like a cheap excuse to push through a government policy and probably won't happen.
  • The Maple Leaf stops running: This might actually happen.  The Maple Leaf (and the other cross-border trains in Vancouver and Montreal) have long-been a security issue with smuggling.  Given their unique funding and operational requirements, they are annoying for both Amtrak and VIA.  Until last year, the whole Toronto-New York route was under threat until the future of the Whirlpool Bridge was secured.  I could see a situation similar to what happened to the former Toronto-Chicago International, which now only runs as a VIA train to Sarnia and then an Amtrak train from Michigan, with passengers having to cross the border themselves.  This would remove the risk at the bridge and allow Canada and the US to close the dedicated border posts for the train.

I hope that none of these scenarios comes to pass, but when plots come to light there is always a discussion as to what should be done.  I tend to subscribe to the "carry on as normal" view.  Security is needed, but not to the point that it makes life unpleasant.

I intend to continue to watch trains and railways in the greater Toronto area.  After all, REAL railfans are one of the railway's best lines of defence.  Not only do we observe, but we often know enough about rail operations to know when something feels wrong.  We are free eyes and ears and railway companies should embrace this (as Amtrak, Norfolk Southern and BNSF have already done).

Hoping that sober heads prevail...
Alleged 'al-Qaeda-supported' plot against Via train thwarted - CBC News

(note: edited 23 April to include Norfolk Southern's security initiative)

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