The daily volume of passengers transported by worldwide rail, including international trains, commuter trains, light rail systems, and underground trains makes them prime terrorist targets. Passenger trains in Russia, India, and Spain have been targeted in recent years, as have been underground systems in Moscow, Tokyo, New York, and London. In Japan, passenger trains carry more than 22 billion passengers each year, while those in China and India carry staggering numbers as well. For these countries, rail is a crucial transport mode where private vehicles are relatively few. In Europe, the British rail system carries over 1.2 billion each year and the German system transports 2.2 billion each year. Subway systems are particularly vulnerable. The Hong Kong underground system carries 7 million passengers daily, as does the Moscow Metro. The New York subway system transports 4.5 million every day, similar in numbers to the Paris Metro. London’s Underground moves an estimated 3.4 million a day.
The combination of thousands of miles of unsecured track and the large concentration of passengers on mass transit trains makes them very appealing terrorist targets. The Tokyo subway was targeted for chemical and biological attack, while other trains and subways have been the targets of bombers. Both of these threats are best countered by constant surveillance and prevention. The potential for hostage taking aboard a train requires careful planning and intensive training to enable a tactical unit to have a high probability of success in carrying out a rescue.
Although the general procedures for clearing train cars remain constant no matter what the type of train, other aspects of an assault will vary between cross-country or commuter trains, elevated trains, subway trains, and airport people-moving trains.
Stopping a Moving Target
Once it is learned that a train has been hijacked or passengers have been taken hostage, the first consideration is immobilizing the train. Attempting to carry out an operation against a moving train would be extremely difficult. The SAS (Special Air Service) did practice having operators board moving trains as they passed under overpasses, but at least one operator was reported killed practicing such techniques. In some cases, such as the hijacking of a train near Bovendsmilde Holland, the terrorists will stop the train at a point along the tracks.
However, it may be necessary to use a track control switch to shunt a hijacked train onto a siding. Antiterrorist personnel have the advantage of knowing a train’s route and can choose a siding which offers the highest likelihood of a successful assault. A hijacked subway or elevated train might be taken over at a station and held there, or it might be stopped in a tunnel or along a piece of track. Consideration may also be given to detaching the locomotive or cutting power to the train if possible, to prevent terrorists forcing the crew to move it to another location. Another option is once the target train has been stopped, another train may be moved into position to block it on a siding.
While assault plans are made, negotiators will attempt to talk the terrorists out. However, today this is a less likely scenario than in the past as many terrorist groups now may be suicidal or at least fatalistic, and plan to kill as many hostages as possible.
Although training is often predicated on the assumption that a passenger train would be taken for its hostage value, antiterrorist personnel must also plan for an assault on a freight train that might be taken because of its cargo, particularly if it is transporting nuclear, chemical, or biological materials. These would be very dangerous should the terrorists attempt to destroy the train and release hazardous materials in a populated area. In this case, the first priority would be stopping the train before it reached an urban area, then assaulting it to prevent the terrorists from carrying out their plan.
In the case of passenger trains that are above ground, it would be optimum to stop them in a position that offers good sniper cover and shooting angles. Since passenger trains have lots of windows, there is a good possibility of taking out some terrorists with precision rifle fire. However, snipers must be experienced and have practiced shooting through train windows so that they can anticipate deflection angles. A more powerful tactical rifle in .300 Win. Mag. or .338 Lapua Mag. might be appropriate, especially as a shot might be offered through the train car’s body below or to the side of a window. Multiple snipers should be assigned to each target as well. The desired result is not a firefight, but a quick and disabling strike. Note that in the case of subway trains, snipers will often not be applicable.
It cannot be assumed that snipers will be able to eliminate all threats and an assault team must be ready to follow-up. Although snipers can provide some intelligence, an assault team will need additional intelligence. Unless the terrorists constantly patrol along the length of the train during the night, operators may be able to infiltrate under the train in order to place listening devices or even fiber optic observation tools. The railway company should be able to provide blueprints of the train and information about its mechanical features (i.e., operation of doors and windows, automatic braking devices, etc.). In a perfect world, operators should have access to a train car of the same type to practice assaults.
Intelligence about the passengers, crew, and terrorists is extremely important. Operators will have to sort out shoot and no-shoot targets once the assault starts—and railway cars, especially in the Far East, can be very crowded. If sniper, operators or observer teams can obtain photos of the terrorist, this will help with mission intelligence. On incidents that stretch beyond a couple of days, photos may be obtained from families of hostages for operators to study. In longer incidents, psychological profiles should be prepared. During the lengthy Bovendsmilde train incident, psychologists profiled the hostages and determined that a couple would be highly likely to panic. One of these hostages did and leapt in panic. This hostage was killed by fire from the Royal Dutch Marine assault team.
Offer Distractions, Use Blind Spots
Since railway roadbeds are often raised and the windows are high in the cars, it is generally possible to do a stealth approach along the side of a train prior to carrying out an entry. At least some teams exercise to fast rope onto the top of the train from helicopters, though the sound of a helo’s rotors chopping the air will likely alert the targets. In either case, when exposed, the actual assault through doors at the end of carriages will take time. Operators should know from practice, or work with railway personnel that know the best way to force entry, and have proper gear. If a sniper-initiated entry is used, this may give time for the entry team to get through the doors and into shooting positions. Other distractions may be used as well.
At Bovendsmilde, a Dutch Air Force fighter jet roared low over the train and kicked in its afterburner thus causing hostages and terrorists to duck as the assault began. If stun grenades are used, it should be borne in mind that a compartmentalized train may lessen the radius of their effect. The presence of children, or those with heart or other health issues, must be considered since the effect of a stun grenade will be amplified within a compartment.
Some units including the French GIGN, practice using dogs in tubular assaults. In the case of train car clearances, the K9, which is trained to attack anyone with a gun, would be inserted just before the assault team entered. Moving quickly down an aisle, the dog wearing a Kevlar vest makes a very difficult target and can neutralize a terrorist very quickly. Many teams practice a variation of the technique used on buses, in which a ladder or a ramp can be jammed through windows, allowing operators to rush up them to shoot any terrorist visible.
A complicating consideration in train assaults is the number of cars. If terrorists are holding hostages in multiple cars, then multiple entry points along the train will be necessary to prevent terrorists from killing hostages while another assault takes place in a few cars away. Intelligence is crucial here. Great care must be taken too that a “blue-on-blue” situation doesn’t arise with assault teams moving towards each other. One technique is to have multiple teams assault and move in the same direction (i.e. front to back of the train) halting as soon as they reach a predetermined point. The number of cars and locations of hostages and terrorists will influence how this is handled. In any case, good communication is critical.
Elevated Trains, Elevated Problems
Monorail trains, elevated trains, airport people-movers, or any rail car that sits high off the ground, can present a real problem if seized and stopped high above the ground. Basically, the options are fast-roping onto the train or performing an entry using ladders if possible. If the train is not too high above the ground, many units have special vehicles with ramps or ladders, which may be raised to allow an assault, or may adapt rapidly deployed hydraulic fire rescue ladders. Snipers offer great support in these cenarios. If terrorist locations are known, operators may opt to take them out with shots through the roof or floor of a car using bursts of AP (armor piercing) rounds.
Hijacked subway cars present particular problems, especially if stopped in a tunnel. Operators approaching with any type of light will immediately be spotted by the terrorists. On the other hand, most major subway systems have video cameras in tunnels, often on cars, and electronic sensors that can be used to identify where the train is stopped. Operators can use NV (night vision) goggles to infiltrate near the train to gather intelligence prior to an assault. IR (infra-red) illuminators with IR goggles should be used if available during the assault. If the subway car were lit, cutting power just before the assault would give the operators an important advantage. When operating in subway tunnels, operators must be very aware of the third rail to avoid electrocution. It is recommended too that operators equip themselves with suppressed weapons to cut flash in case any flammable gas in the tunnel.
Simulating a Crisis
It is most advantageous for major U.S. teams to train at the Washington Metro Area Emergency Response Training Facility, which has a section of subway tunnel 260 feet long and 30 feet wide with two 75-foot subway cars. This facility allows operators to train in all types of rescue scenarios involving subway cars. Using Simunitions here provides trainees with valuable force-on-force training.
Most major antiterrorist units worldwide have railway or subway cars available at their training facility. National antiterrorist units and major PDs should also be able to arrange training on cars at railway maintenance facilities.
Concluding the Rescue
Once an assault is carried out and active terrorists neutralized, hostages should be removed individually and restrained until IDs are confirmed. Individuals and the cars they were pulled from should be checked for explosives.
Trains and subways will continue to be very attractive targets for terrorists, as they are frequently crowded, easily boarded without having to pass through security checks or metal detectors, and offer substantial difficulties for rescue forces. As a result, hostage rescue units must plan and train in advance for a wide variety of scenarios on trains—both above and below ground.