Growing safely

By Roger Williams

Worldwide rail passenger growth is offering huge opportunities for caterers and onboard suppliers but it also brings security challenges previously the preserve of the airlines. Roger Williams discovers more

New high speed intercity routes and trains are being launched almost every month. Global investment in railways is now the highest it has ever been as governments seize the opportunities of new trade and societal links being provided in the most environmentally-friendly way.
This is simultaneously opening up high-speed travel to new markets, including some that were previously out of reach for millions. For example, Hong Kong’s Vibrant Express direct link to China’s national high-speed network; Malaysia’s Kuala Lumpar–Singapore high-speed line; Cambodia’s restoration of a line from Phnom Penh to Thailand’s Bangkok; and the Rail Baltica project to join Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania with Poland and the rest of Europe.

Volumes and responsibility

Putting the volumes into perspective, Deutsche Bahn, Europe’s largest rail operator, with 10% growth since 2014, now carries 142m passengers on its intercity trains – over 20m more than Europe’s largest airline (by passenger volume), Ryan Air carries in a year.

The potential to build the passenger experience onboard rail is huge but with these opportunities comes huge responsibility – one that the airlines have been managing at the sharp end for decades – security. It’s become a major priority for railways now but just how it impacts the passenger experience and the market is still to be fully understood.

New restrictions

Railways are open access, jump on / jump off, and last minute ticket purchasing is the norm. The level of convenience they offer is what makes them so competitive. However, with the increasing threat of terrorism, and some recent issues affecting trains on Belgium’s cross border service Thalys, rail operators are under pressure to add improved security measures.

Physical barriers

To do this requires a combination of technology, resources, vigilance and training, across rail operations and their supply chain. Of course physical barriers to guard the intercity network are important. Anti-vehicle barricades, armed security and even sniffer dogs are all part of the modern day rail travel experience.The station and onboard environment also has one of the most heavily concentrated CCTV public networks, many with facial recognition systems. Whilst digital identity reconnaissance is on the edge of reasonableness to some people, there is so much data available from smart ticketing alone that the traveller must increasingly expect a degree of journey tracking.

Currently in Europe, only cross-border services outside the Schengen zone (such as Eurostar) are required by law to operate airport-style check-in controls directly prior to boarding, with bag scanners and passport checks.

However, many long distance operators such as Thalys and Renfe in Spain regularly scan bags during the boarding procedure, and this trend seems likely to become more prevalent. It does slow the passage of customers from station to train but it also provides reassurance and a deterrant.

On the plus side, it can also be an opportunity for tech firms to employ their tools of the trade to facilitate speedy boarding; and in many locations lounges and station outlets will benefit from longer dwell times as boarding is marginally less instantaneous. With pre-booking, reserved seats and digital ticketing, rail journeys will still be quicker than the airport drag.

New technology

In a new development, Amtrak and the USA’s Transportation Security Administration (TSA) are testing new mobile security tech aimed at identifying body-worn explosive devices. The testing is being conducted in New York’s Pennsylvania Station and triggers an alarm if a person is carrying or wearing explosives.

Training and communication

Last but not least rail operators, station and onboard caterers all need to understand their role and what to do in the event of a suspected or actual threat. Companies need to train their staff in the “See it, Say it, Sorted” approach (as in the UK) or similar in line with security agency advice. Ultimately this is something we should all learn! •