Wednesday, December 17, 2008

The Terror Threat Across the River, Redux

Federal and state authorities are investigating today's collision--and derailment--of two freight trains near Dresbach, Minnesota. The early-morning accident sent at least one engine and several rail cars plunging down an embankment, and into the Mississippi River.

Both trains were operated by the Canadian Pacific Railroad, which has an enviable safety record. All four crew members have been accounted for, and there are no reports of serious injuries. However, the accident is snarling traffic along a key rail route, and hazard materials crews are on the scene.

But the Dresbach mishap caught our attention for other reasons. While there is no hint of suspicious activity in today's accident, it is a reminder of the vulnerability of our rail lines--and the potential impact on our economy.

Dresbach is located in southwestern Minnesota, only nine miles from one of the most important rail crossings on the Mississippi River, in nearby Lacrosse, Wisconsin. The crash site is roughly 250 miles south of another key rail bridge, in the town of Little Falls.

As we detailed in this 2007 post, most of the nation's transcontinental rail freight moves across just seven bridges spanning the Mississippi River, including those in Little Falls and Lacrosse. All told, the seven spans handle 680 million metric tons of freight every year, including much of the coal burned by power plants in the Midwest and northeast.

But protecting these critical rail points remains problematic:

Security for these crossings rests primarily with the railroads and local law enforcement. Rail carriers claim that they have improved security practices since 9-11, but an investigation by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (published last January), found little or no police presence along key rail routes, and shoddy security practices at both hazardous chemical plants and the railroad lines that serve them. Visiting rail facilities from New Jersey to the West Coast, a Tribune-Review reporter was never questioned as he climbed trains, photographed derailing levers and peeked into control boxes that control rail traffic.

Results of that investigation provides little assurance about security at rail bridges that span the Mississippi. Many of the crossings are located in small towns (with limited police resources), and there's no evidence that the railroads protect the bridges more effectively than the trains and rail yards visited by the Tribune-Review.

Could terrorists damage or destroy one of the major rail crossings? Based on existing security measures--and the Iraq example--the answer is probably "yes." It wouldn't take much to drive a truck laden with explosives onto a bridge and detonate it, or place charges at key points on the structure, and trigger them with timers or a pressure switch, activated by a passing train. The results of such a strike would be devastating, destroying the bridge or disabling it for months, and snarling cross-country shipments of coal and other critical cargo. Successful bridge attacks would also close sections of the Mississippi to barge traffic, limiting water-borne shipments as well.

But so far, threats to key bridges have not materialized. Indeed, some plots--including a plan to destroy the Brooklyn Bridge with a blow torch--have been amateurish, at best. But terrorists in Iraq mounted a successful campaign that destroyed six major bridges in 2007. And here at home, the FBI investigated a "floating bomb" that was found near the causeway across Louisiana's Lake Pontchartrain two years ago. The device did not explode, but federal agents said the incident had all the makings of a "test run."

While it would take the right amount of explosives (and engineering expertise) to disable or drop a Mississippi River rail bridge, such attacks are within the realm of possibilities. Bringing down a bridge (or two) wouldn't match the psychological impact of 9-11, but it would create dire economic difficulties for a nation that still depends on its rail lines--and those seven critical bridges across the Mississippi.

ADDENDUM: Proving that fiction sometimes runs ahead of reality, author P.T. Deutermann built his suspenseful novel Train Man around a plot against rail bridges over the Mississippi. Deutermann's bomber isn't an Islamic terrorist--the book was published months before 9-11--but it underscores the potential threat to key rail crossings.

1 comment:

lgude said...

Well spotted - the low tech threat. It seems to me that terrorists will strike where they can when it suits them. One reason them may have left us alone since 9/11 is simply that they knew that another outrage might well strengthen Bush's hand. In their demented calculation they may decide the new president is worth road testing.