Page last updated at 16:24 GMT, Tuesday, 30 March 2010 17:24 UK

Can underground trains be secured against terrorism?

In the aftermath of the Moscow Metro suicide bombings, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has called for tighter security measures on public transport. Transport security analyst Chris Yates examines whether it is possible to secure large networks against the threat of terrorism.

It is currently very difficult to prevent a suicide bomber from attacking a public transport system.

Airport-style security cannot be instigated in a transport operation like the Moscow Metro or indeed the London Underground. It would bring systems to a halt.

The Moscow Metro has five million or so passengers per day - it is just impossible to process that number of people with the kind of security that is in place in an airport.

Police stand  near a map of the Moscow Metro, 29 March
March 2010: Two suicide bombers blow themselves up at Lubyanka station and Park Kultury station, killing 39 people
August 2004: Suicide bomber blows herself up outside Rizhskaya station, killing 10
February 2004: Suicide bombing on Zamoskvoretskaya line, linking main airports, kills 40
August 2000: Bomb in pedestrian tunnel leading to Tverskaya station kills 13
February 2000: Blast injures 20 inside Belorusskaya station
January 1998: Three injured by blast at Tretyakovskaya station
June 1996: Bomb on the Serpukhovskaya line kills four

What can be done is to have a much greater degree of surveillance, using those ubiquitous CCTV systems, some of which are very good nowadays - the new digital systems, for example.

This makes it possible to monitor people moving about in the transit system, and where operators pick up unusual activity, law enforcement agents would be able to focus on whoever was acting suspiciously and mitigate whatever the threat might be.

This is not easy, as it requires constant monitoring of CCTV. There are systems that allegedly will automate some of the analysis process, but the jury is still out on whether these automated systems have any utility.

There has been some talk, in the hours since the Moscow bombing, about behavioural analysis, which might be useful, but this remains to be seen.

In such a high-pressure transport system, to try to pick out individuals based on behaviour is not going to be easy.

One only needs to sit in a cafe at a railway station to see every type of individual go past in the course of an hour.

Explosives scanning

Anyone in mass transit security will agree on the fact that there is not a lot of technology out there at the moment to stop a determined suicide bomber.

Facial recognition requires all the right conditions to function.

Laser-induced fluorescence illuminates the target with UV light
Any residue on the target will fluoresce for a short time. This will be invisible and safe for the person being scanned
Best used on one individual at a time, so at the turnstile of a station would be ideal
Works through a camera system which can be mounted on the ceiling above the turnstile or to the side
Detects explosives on what is exposed, ie on an individual's clothing, what he/she is carrying and on skin
When the system detects an explosive, it can be programmed to raise the alarm
The system can detect the most commonly used explosives such as Semtex, C4, ammonium nitrate or fuel oil
Being developed for use at airport security
Source: Laser Optical Engineering, Loughborough University

Most require that images being captured are compared against a database, so a high-quality image is needed to start with to do the match. In the case of some terrorists, that image will not exist.

There is some advanced technology which could have some utility in the future: a scanning device being developed at Loughborough University, called an explosives residue detector, uses a UV light source to scan individuals as they enter the underground network.

It will give a clear indication if somebody has handled explosives and if they have, this gives an indication that they may be wearing explosives.

This technology is slowly coming to commercialisation. People are not asked to stop - it is a non-contact system and it will scan a person in a couple of seconds and raise the alarm.

Of course, there has to be some method of responding to the alarm.

Given the risk to mass transit systems these days, there is a much greater police presence - this applies in cities like London, Moscow or New York - so it is a question of focusing the attention of law enforcement agencies on a potential threat.


The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific