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Moscow subway attack: Five ways to make mass transit safer

The Moscow subway attack Monday highlighted gaps in security. But several new technologies and practices can make subways and mass-transit stations significantly safer, experts say.

By Suzi ParkerCorrespondent / March 30, 2010

A police officer in New York stands guard at the Times Square station after the city heightened security Monday following the Moscow subway attacks.

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Mass-transit systems across the world responded to the Moscow subway attack by heightening security. But such knee-jerk reactions only expose the weakness of subway security, experts say.

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Security on mass-transit systems should be a daily priority, like in airports, they add, suggesting that subway stations do not have to be soft terrorist targets.

Of course, commuters' expectations that public transit take them a few miles with minimal inconvenience makes it impossible to implement in subways the strict screening that exists in airports.

But the need is great. More than 10.2 billion trips were taken on public transit in 2009. Yet in the first-ever quadrennial security review released by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) last month, subways are mentioned only once in the 108-page report. As outlined in that report, the most severe threat facing any transportation system is a weapon of mass destruction such as a nuclear device or a biological weapon.

Common-sense steps and new technologies can make mass-transit safer. Here are five ways:

1. 'Gaming technology'

It may sound like something from a Jason Bourne movie but some mass-transit systems, especially in Europe, are using so-called "gaming technology" to turn intelligence into preventing terrorist attacks.

Gaming technology uses an array of hardware, software, and fast processor speeds. It records a scene in real time using 360-degree photography and immersive video – allowing for recording of every direction at the same time. It also often includes global positioning systems (GPS) and inertial guidance systems (IGS) for tracking and positioning information.

If the computer picks up on a possible situation – say, a passenger has a dirty bomb or a bioweapon – a series of actions will occur. The train’s driver will be notified, the entrance and exits doors may electronically be opened or closed depending on the situation.

2. PROTECT

Just as companies are providing next-generation surveillance technologies for trains, they are also trying to transform security in stations. One example is PROTECT, which consists of hardware and software that can provide automated detection of a terrorist attack.

The exact suite of technologies in PROTECT, which stands for Program for Response Operations and Technology Enhancements for Chemical/Biological Terrorism, is not made public. But security experts say it contains biological and chemical sensor technology, video, wireless communications, and computer software to simulate the spread of potential contaminants.

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