Thursday, February 18, 2010

Safe Trains in Spain

By: Craig Reck

Edited by: Yacong Yuan

Airline security measures are a big issue in the world today. People consider the balance between safety and privacy, while waiting in line for hours to board. One mode of transportation seems to be overlooked during this debate - trains. They are a major form of commuting throughout Europe, especially Spain. The country has a deep history of terrorism on trains.

A high speed train in the Spanish countryside,Photo:RailEurope

On 11 March, 2004, ten bombs exploded on four trains in Madrid killing 191 people and injuring another 1,800. This attack rocked the nation's train system during the busiest time of day, morning rush hour. The entire world turned to Spain with condolences, but that was more than five years ago. How are trains protecting travelers from terrorists now?

The Spanish National Railway Network, RENFE, would not comment on this issue. Train security is so closely related to national security that no one would talk about it for fear of potential terrorism. Julio Hermida Gayubas, the company's Press Chief in Madrid said that Spain has a history of combating terrorism from organizations like the Basque nationalist group ETA. The ETA has caused trouble for the Spanish government for more than 40 years, killing approximately 855 people since 1968. The organization was initially thought to be the cause of the Madrid train bombings. Last year, the government detained 124 members of the separatist group and has already put 17 behind bars this year. But what's stopping the ETA from repeating an attack like the one in Madrid?

"Commuter and regional trains are patrolled by private and public security officials daily,” says Fernando Domínguez Puente, a Press Officer for the Department of Transportation in Madrid. “On long distance, high-speed trains, each passenger has to pass over a security check before boarding the train. This check includes a complete scanning of their baggage and, in specific cases, a personal search." Puente’s e-mail did not say much else about the security measures in Spanish train stations.

Train Bomb in Madrid, 2004, Photo from: Political Forum

Spanish citizens, however, had no problem speaking about the issue. Adhara Dodero, a student and assistant photographer in Madrid, thinks so. “I feel safe…but they don’t ask for papers or passport or anything – just your ticket.” Dodero, who takes a train at least once a month, is referencing the small trains that link smaller stations like the ones in Pamplona and Vitoría. The larger trains that connect cities like Barcelona and Madrid are more likely to ask for some identification. Either way, she says that the lack of security checkpoints allows for quicker loading and unloading of passengers. “You arrive ten minutes before the train leaves. You couldn’t do that with scanners. There would be long lines and waits.” Dodero says that this would take away from the ease and popularity of train travel in Spain.

If travelers in Spain find the trade of maximum security for speed and convenience unsettling, they have an alternative – planes. Baggage x-rays and ID confirmations ensure a safe trip for fliers, but they also make it difficult for impromptu travel. If someone in Barcelona suddenly needs to be in Madrid after working all day, a train might be easier to catch and cost less money. Booking a same-day, one-way flight could cost almost twice as much as its train ticket equivalent. A train leaving Friday night would cost approximately 55 Euro, roughly $75. Meanwhile, airfare for flights leaving at about the same time would cost anywhere from 59 to 90 Euro. That’s a difference of almost $50! Granted, the planes would arrive in Madrid sooner, but the passenger would have to check-in for the departure hours in advance. Showing up 10 minutes before a plane leaves results in a missed flight. Like Dodero said, however, minimal train security lends itself to last minute travel plans.

Is saving money worth lowering security standards and wait times for trains? Adhara Dodero agrees, because she says there’s a bigger issue to consider. “The problem is not only the trains or safety,” says Dodero. “Terrorism is everywhere. Even with the best security, someone can do something bad. I think you can feel something of security when you’re on a train.” The government is working to combat terrorism on trains, even if nobody knows what exactly. Regardless of what’s being done, Dodero and the rest of Spain’s commuter community will continue to travel the best way they know how.

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