Rail Threats & Interdependencies – Thoughts for Discussion

by Rick Mathews

In the United States, there are ongoing efforts to protect the nation’s critical infrastructure (CI). Presidential directives, coupled with national security strategies and several iterations of the National Infrastructure Protection Plan (NIPP), have spanned the terms of at least four presidents and included the rail system. The volume of activity on or near rail lines, potential threats, and interdependencies all raise concern for the protection of this critical infrastructure asset.

Rick Mathews headshotThe NIPP has been organized along general and sector provisions – with the former pertaining to aspects of the plan that should be applicable across all sectors and the latter focusing on individual factors of each specific sector. The number of separate sectors has varied, with the 2006 NIPP delineating 16 sectors, which was increased to 18 in the 2007-2008 update. In 2013, the number of sectors was realigned with the result being 16 sectors, which was continued in 2017. Although the number of sectors varied, all have identified transportation systems as being one of them. Within the Transportation Systems Sector there are currently seven key subsectors. Rail transportation is addressed in two of the subsectors: (1) mass transit and passenger rail; and (2) freight rail. According to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) through the NIPP, there are over 138,000 miles of active railways, 1.33 million freight cars, and approximately 20,000 locomotives. The railways handle more than 12,000 trains daily.

With respect to passenger rail operations, DHS has indicated that the nation’s mass transit systems provide over 10 billion passenger trips annually. Within that statistic, Amtrak accommodates approximately 31.3 million passengers annually, which is an average of about 85,700 passengers riding more than 300 Amtrak trains each day. This does not include the passenger transportation being provided by local and regional rail carriers or light rail systems.

Current & Emerging Threats

One of the differences between the two subsectors is “what” is being transported. In one subsector, the primary cargo being transported is freight and related non-human products. In the second subsector, the primary “cargo” is humans. Although freight trains also transport crews and passenger trains transport some packages, major differences remain. Considering the entirety of the two sectors – mass transit/passenger rail and freight rail – the number of potential threats can be significant. The many threats can be categorized as follows:

  • Those that are caused by or are acts of nature,
  • Those caused by mechanical failures,
  • Those directly related to human acts – either by accident or on purpose, and
  • Those caused by system failures due to interdependencies

It can also be useful to group threats according to the threat’s specific target, for example:

  • Threats to the railway itself, or to bridges being crossed;
  • Threats to the terminals where passenger board and disembark;
  • Threats to the human operation of a train or perhaps to the supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) systems that comprise its operational controls; or
  • Threats due to lack of fuel to energize the locomotive, with the deficiency being a consequence of supply chain interruptions caused by storms or other threats to the fuel system.

In other words, to do a comprehensive analysis of the threats to the railway subsectors, one needs to think in a broader scope than one might otherwise undertake.

Rail Threats & Interdependencies – Thoughts for Discussion

Typical train tracks where debris could fall onto the rails (Source: Mathews, 2018).

Interdependencies (With Passenger Railways & Systems as the Base)

Many published papers and articles have addressed the concept of interdependencies and how they relate to critical infrastructure systems. A paper published in 2006 by the Idaho National Laboratory (INL) spoke directly to this point. The purpose of the underlying research was to survey literature related to U.S. and international research in interdependencies. The paper cited a quote from the 2002 Congressional Research Service Report for Congress, “The Nation’s health, wealth, and security rely on the production and distribution of certain goods and services,” which is the basis for the term “critical infrastructure” (CI). The relationships among different sectors of critical infrastructure were not significantly studied until the mid- to late 1990s. One of the consequences of this has been an “incomplete understanding of the interdependencies between infrastructures,” as quoted from a 2002 RAND report cited in the INL 2006 paper.

Since the late 1990s, research and papers have been published defining and discussing the concept of interdependence and how this relates to critical infrastructure. Some characterize dependencies by category such as physical, cyber/informational, geographic/geospatial, policy/procedural, and societal. The takeaway is that once a classification system has been adopted, the relationships among CI sectors and subsectors can be examined.

One Hypothetical Scenario

Assume one autumn day, a passenger train coming out of a long curve strikes a pile of debris on the tracks. As a result, three crewmembers and four passengers are injured. Additional losses include $10 million in equipment and $200,000 in track-related damages. It is determined that a rock slide had occurred above a county roadway that runs parallel to the railway, about 50 feet higher on the side of the hill. The rockslide restrictive systems – systems designed to protect the roadway and subsequently the railway – had been in place in the area for some time.

The direct relationship or dependency related to the cause would likely be “physical” with the threat being an act of nature. Furthermore, this incident occurs in an area where rockslides are frequent and, historically, the restrictive systems installed have been successful in stopping significant debris from falling onto the road or the tracks below. In this instance, there also exists a dependency on the public works or highway departments of the county, which is not a typical part of the railway CI subsector.

A further investigation reveals that the restrictive systems have been removed deliberately in that one area without permits and without the landowner’s knowledge. The county public works department states in the subsequent after-action report (AAR), that it depends on the county’s law enforcement agency, in addition to its own observations, to detect illegal actions – like the system removal – during their regular patrols. In this hypothetical case, the railway also depends on the local law enforcement agency to detect malicious or deliberate illegal activity. The passenger rail company states its dependency on the local government’s public works department and, in turn, that department is dependent on the local law enforcement agency. With such interdependencies in place, the resulting chain-of-events are termed “cascading effects.”

Furthermore, the track is closed for the time required for inspecting and repairing it satisfactorily. The passengers traveling on the train that derailed do not arrive at their intended destinations on schedule. Some passengers likely have a critical need to arrive at their destinations on time. For example, perhaps someone does not make a critical meeting, so others then make an uninformed decision that, in turn, leads to additional negative consequences.

Assume that an extremist group deliberately caused the hypothetical incident described above as well as several other derailments occurring at about the same time across the country. In addition to the direct losses related to each incident, other consequences should be expected, for example:

  • The passenger rail system could shut down temporarily across the nation to facilitate inspections;
  • Freight rail systems could be impacted;
  • The traveling public’s faith and trust in the nation’s rail passenger systems could take some time to return;
  • The passenger rail company’s cash flow could be affected; or
  • The federal government may need to inject significantly more money to support the rail system.

Questions for Further Discussion

The above scenario is intended to facilitate thought and discussion about security, preparedness, and resilience for the nation’s railways and in its passenger rail systems. Questions for discussion include:

  • How should emergency preparedness and response professionals think about critical infrastructure protection?
  • What are the first-, second-, and third-order effects that could happen should an incident occur?
  • How reliable are these second- and third-order dependencies?

Although the railway incident used as the example was hypothetical, an actual derailment with similar losses did occur in October 2015. The National Transportation Safety Board determined the incident to be a simple “accident.” Through no fault of the rail line or its personnel, the train struck a pile of debris that fell onto a track because of a rockslide.

The National Infrastructure Protection Plan of 2006 pointed out the importance of identifying and understanding cross-sector dependencies and interdependencies. Studies of catastrophic events since then are illustrative of this point. Not only do the rail systems depend on other sectors for much of their resilience, the loss or disruption of rail service from any hazard could have a cascading impact on other sectors, communities, and industry. Careful thought and consideration of interdependencies should be an essential element of any resilience planning.  

Rick C. Mathews is a principal in the Mathews Group LLC and serves as a public service professor in the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs and Policy as well as in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity, both at the at the University at Albany SUNY. He has over 40 years of experience in the areas of safety, security, counter-terrorism, and emergency preparedness. He has trained emergency responders across the nation and has conducted research in emergency preparedness, homeland security, and critical infrastructure interdependencies. He serves as a consultant to both public and private sector clients, the media, and emergency responder agencies.