Europe

France Thalys train attack provokes rail security row

French police officers patrol at Gare du Nord train station in Paris, France, 22 August 2015. Image copyright AP
Image caption The most obvious solution of adding airport-style security to stations is also the least feasible

An argument over spot checks at French railway stations is one sign of how complicated it will be to increase security on trains following last Friday's foiled attack on the Amsterdam-Paris Thalys.

The ease with which the gunman boarded a packed international train with an arsenal of weapons in his backpack is prompting re-examination of what many experts see as a weak link in the fight against terrorism.

Apart from the cross-Channel Eurostars and the Spanish high-speed network, there are no systematic identity or baggage controls anywhere on the European railway system.

With the Schengen border-free arrangements in place in 26 countries, it means criminals or terrorists can use trains to move around the continent more or less undetected.

They can also transport drugs or arms. And if they choose to use those arms, as on Friday, then hundreds of people are potential victims.

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What we know

Image copyright AP
Image caption Five million people use France's trains every day so boosting security would become a headache for passengers

Of the several avenues being looked into for tightening security, the least feasible is the most obvious: turning railway stations into airports.

Requiring rail passengers to present identity papers, and to submit to a body and bag search, would lower the terrorist risk to practically nil.

But the costs of implementing such a policy make it utterly impractical.

"There are 20 times more train passengers in France than there are air passengers. So whatever security there is now at airports, you would have to multiply it by 20 in stations. It is not a realistic proposition," says Guillaume Pepy, president of France's state rail company SNCF.

'Financial cost'

Five million people use the trains every day in France, at some 3,000 stations - 230 of them linked to the TGV high-speed network. For most of these passengers, the train is an essential part of their working life, with the huge advantage over planes that you can board them up to the moment before departure.

Requiring people to arrive half an hour early in order to get through security would strip rail travel of one of its essential assets.

"There is also the financial cost," says Marc Ivaldi, transport economist at Toulouse School of Economics.

"Not just all the equipment. But reconstructing railway stations to create adequate spaces. Most railway stations are old buildings, and totally unsuited for modern security."

However, Mr Ivaldi says that Eurostar-style checks on international trains like the Thalys - and on parts of France's own TGV network - may now be inevitable.

"It will be purely symbolic, because wherever there are checks the terrorist can go elsewhere. But not doing it may prove untenable."

Image copyright AFP / getty images
Image caption The government has provoked anger by suggesting random checks in the wake of the Thalys attack

If universal Eurostar-style controls are impossible, what other options are there?

One possibility under serious consideration is random checks. But this is where political sensitivities have kicked in.

Speaking on French radio on Monday, the Socialist Transport Minister Alain Vidalies brought down the wrath of the left when he said the risk of racial discrimination that might follow "random" checks was something he could live with.

"Every time we talk about random checks, there is always someone who retorts, 'Yes, but you know it could be discriminatory.' Well you know something: I would rather discriminate and be effective, than just sit back and let it all happen." the minister said.

'Shiver down my spine'

The worry of opponents of random checks is that they would not be random at all. Police would inevitably gravitate towards young males of North African looks, especially ones with beards and wearing a djellaba (full-length hooded robe).

Writing in left-wing daily Liberation, journalist Rachid Laireche said Mr Vidalies' words "sent a shiver down my spine". "By legitimising discriminatory controls... you will not only be ineffective, you will also reinforce the stigmatisation of a whole section of society."

That in turn prompted a storm of indignation from the right, which said the transport minister was talking plain good sense, and that the real scandal was how the suspect, Ayoub el-Khazzani, was able to travel freely around Europe despite having been identified as a potential danger.

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Image caption Three Americans and a Briton were awarded the Legion d'honneur by President Francois Hollande

In general, though, it seems likely that some sort of random baggage check will be authorised by the government later this week - with a strong insistence that it be applied with a close eye to the passenger's appearance.

Other ideas under consideration are an increase in training for the SNCF's 150,000 staff, so they are better equipped to respond to terrorist emergencies; clearer and more prominent warnings about terrorism on trains and in stations; and the deployment of more police and soldiers.

Permanent threat

However, police unions have warned that the service is now at its limits.

"After the January attacks we have been operating at 100% capacity, reinforced by 10,000 soldiers. There is no more reserve," says Nicolas Comte of SGP Police FO.

With the limitations of traditional security improvements all too evident, some are calling for a changed mentality in society as a whole to cope with the now permanent threat.

"I do not doubt the vigilance of the security forces, but what we need now is for the whole nation to be in a state of vigilance," said former centre-right interior minister Claude Gueant.

He cited the example of the state of Israel, which "has lived for years under the constant threat of attacks… and yet people live ordinary lives, because they take elementary precautions".

Urging an Israeli-style security mindset will not endear Mr Gueant to many people in France. But it is a sign of the times that he has not been immediately denounced for making the comparison.

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