Railways: an essential player in Europe’s security challenge

Posted: 23 November 2016 | | No comments yet

In this article for Global Railway Review CER’s Libor Lochman (Executive Director) and Alena Havlova (Security Adviser) state what’s needed in order to tackle terrorism and other security-related risks within the European railway industry. Read their justification for why Member States, EU institutions and the private sector must get more involved, work more closely together and play an active role to ensure the continuity of railway services on which European citizens depend.

Railways: an essential player in Europe’s security challenge

Since the establishment of the Schengen area and abolition of internal border control in the 1990s, Europe has enjoyed the free movement of persons, goods and services. In order to ensure an open and secure Europe, the European Union (EU) introduced measures to strengthen external border control and to improve cooperation and coordination between police and judicial authorities. However, due to the change in the international security environment over the last few years, a heightened fear of terrorism and mass migration shared by increasing numbers of citizens across Europe generated the need to do even more to address these current challenges.

In June 2014 the European Council identified the areas of freedom, security and justice as one of five priorities defining the EU strategic framework for the next five years, focusing, interalia, on preventing and combating terrorism and better management of all aspects of migration.

The European Agenda on Security presented by the European Commission (EC) in April 2015 aimed to initiate new actions to address the emerging threats and evolving challenges. Since then, the EU institutions and Member States have intensified their discussions on how to collaborate better and more closely in order to ensure security in Europe, on the one hand, and free movement on the other. With the strategy of focussing its efforts on responding to cross-border threats in a united way, the EC stressed the need to improve information exchange and increase operational cooperation.

Thalys and everything that followed

With regard more specifically to rail security, the thwarted terrorist attack on a Thalys train on 21 August 2015 led to very heated discussions at a national and European level. Public pressure has been significant, not only on the EC and Member States but also on railway companies, to take appropriate action in response to the incident.

The EC and Member States organised several meetings and events on terrorism discussing what common European approach could be taken with regard to rail security. In general, Member States – solely responsible for ensuring internal security – were in favour of proportionate measures, relying on risk and threat assessment. These should also take into account national differences and preserve the essential functions of railways as an open-access transport mode. Furthermore, Member States agreed to share information with
intelligence services in a more permanent and consistent manner. These decisions made by the EU institutions were highly appreciated by the rail sector.

Meanwhile, the EC continued to exchange good practices at the meetings of the EC’s Expert Group on Land Transport Security (LANDSEC) and launched a study on the options for the security of European high-speed and international rail services. Stakeholders and Member States are still anxiously awaiting the results of this study. The main fear is that disproportionate and inadequate measures might be proposed as an outcome of the study to prevent and respond to security incidents. High-speed and international lines are fully integrated in the whole railway system and are thus subject to the same threat level as conventional and national lines. The issue is, therefore, to prevent terrorists from simply shifting their focus from one area to another. Additionally, any measures introduced need to be holistic and considered from the wider public security point-of-view while enabling travellers’ free movement.

European rail transport in the hands of national politics

Even though it is necessary to distinguish between the two challenges – terrorism and mass migration – they both represent a growing concern for the EU and Member States. Despite the international nature of the challenges, which both require a coordinated approach at the European level, different Member States have introduced special national measures. This has led to a restriction of free movement of people and has impacted on certain international rail passenger lines, putting them at a disadvantage compared to other services. With regard to terrorism, this shifts the risk of attack to another target as opposed to mitigating it.

In France security gates have been installed in Paris Gare du Nord and Lille Europe in order to check passengers and their luggage when boarding Thalys trains leaving France. This has not only increased the waiting times for passengers but also created queues and crowds at these stations, which could become possible targets for terrorists and other criminals.

In Sweden, in order to deal with large and increasing immigration flows, an obligation was imposed on carriers to carry out identity checks for passengers travelling from Denmark to Sweden. As a consequence, train travel has been disrupted and delayed, a number of trains were cancelled and passengers are advised to arrive at least 30 minutes before departure because of this procedure. The train stations are not built for such controls and railway staff are not trained to carry them out, so special arrangements have had to be introduced to comply with this rule.

As a result of both aforementioned cases, passengers have been involuntarily forced to partly switch from public transport to private cars. This clearly goes against the objective of the EC’s White Paper on European transport, which aims to generate a shift from road to rail. Moreover, despite the difficulties it has not prevented criminals or migrants from moving across the borders.

On top of this the Belgian government, among others, announced the plan to introduce security gates and a passenger name record (PNR) system for international high-speed lines, as part of a counterterrorism package. As for the PNR different transport modes, above all international high-speed lines departing from, passing through, or arriving in Belgium, would fall under the scope of this legislation, which would have an impact on rail services coming from and going to France, Germany, the Netherlands and the UK. Those operating these services would be obliged to provide available PNR data to a dedicated Belgian authority in advance and verify the identity of the traveller during the boarding process. A number of questions and concerns arise from this proposal. As the matter is very serious and urgent, CER (the Community of European Railway & Infrastructure Companies) sent out a letter to the Belgian Prime Minister, Minister of the Interior and Minister of Transport to raise their awareness of the negative impact this legislation would have on the whole functioning of the European railway system.

In its letter, CER argued that the proposal would not be feasible without implementing significant and complicated actions. In fact numerous passengers use railways for the ‘turn up and go’ aspect; purchasing tickets at the very last moment before departure or even on-board when the train is already moving. Additionally, PNR data is not systematically collected by railway companies as most of the tickets in paper form are anonymous. Some (and only limited) passenger information is available for those purchasing tickets online. It would therefore be impossible to provide national authorities with relevant and representative PNR data well in advance of departure.

Railways’ perspective on security – CER principles

The security and protection of rail passengers is an unquestionable priority for the members of CER. For this reason CER has continuously and actively participated in discussions at EU level with regard to possible policy development of European measures on terrorism and rail security, sharing and representing the view of the railway sector on these issues. In order to contribute more to the political discussions on this matter, CER published an updated Position Paper on Rail Security in February 2016, reflecting the railways’ standpoint.

The aforementioned national measures clearly show the negative impact of uncoordinated national legislations. For European railway transport this leads not only to disproportionality and practical difficulties, but can also shift the risks from one area to another. Railways are in no doubt about their responsibility and take the task of constantly improving their security management systems very seriously. However, railways as an open-access transport mode can hardly be protected entirely from all potential threats. Airport-style security measures are not an option and a more flexible approach enabling a quick response to evolving threats is crucial, taking account of national and regional differences. Furthermore, a more appropriate analysis is needed before proposing any possible measures, which should have a clear added value; increase the security level; and be proportionate. Inappropriate measures may create new risks to security and would lead to a loss of rail competitiveness and the shift of rail passengers to other modes of transport, resulting in an overall decrease in transport safety.

In summary, a holistic, proportionate and coordinated approach is necessary to reassure the public about overall security. Responsibility for addressing the threat of terrorism and other security-related risks lies in the remit of law enforcement authorities. Hence, effective law enforcement actions require further enhanced international coordination and cooperation among police and security services and a better exchange of data and intelligence at national and European level. This must be accompanied by ever more effective EU police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, involving different stakeholders, where relevant, so that police forces and judicial authorities in different
Member States can respond quickly and efficiently.

All in all, Member States, EU institutions and the private sector need to get more involved; work more closely together; and play an active role in enhancing overall security and ensuring the continuity of railway services on which European citizens are dependent. CER and their members are relying on the EU policymakers to reflect carefully on these concerns and respond with appropriate actions, with a view to ensuring that no disproportionate measures are taken in the field of rail transport. Rail customers expect railway services to be not only safe and secure but also functional and reliable.


Libor LochmanLibor Lochman has been Executive Director of the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) since 1 January 2012. Libor graduated at the Transport University in Zilina and has a doctorate in electronics from the West-Bohemian University Plzen. He has a strong background in Control-Command and signalling systems. Prior to his role as CER Deputy Executive Director and Lead of Technical Affairs (2007-2011), Libor acted as Director of the Railway Test Centre – a facility for testing European rolling stock, infrastructure and signalling components in Prague (2000-2005). Libor joined the Editorial Board of Global Railway Review in January 2013.

Alena HavlovaAlena Havlova has been Security Adviser at the Community of European Railway and Infrastructure Companies (CER) since 1 March 2013. Alena holds a Master’s degree in Political Science from the University of Vienna and a Master’s degree in European Interdisciplinary Studies from the College of Europe (Natolin campus, Poland). Prior to joining CER, Alena completed a traineeship at the Land and Maritime Security Unit at the European Commission’s DG MOVE. Prior to that, she gained valuable experience through work, interalia, at the Permanent Representation of the Czech Republic in Vienna.