From terrorism to metal theft: what security threats, and where?

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“Security is not about restriction. It’s about freedom to go wherever you want.”

Since the spate of terror attacks on cities like New York, London and Madrid in recent years, the world has been on high alert. Increased security on major transport networks has become commonplace, and occasionally, certain liberties have had to be surrendered in the name of tackling terrorist threats.

But while the potential for terrorism on public transport networks is the most attention-grabbing security problem, it’s certainly not the most common one.

In Europe in recent years, however, the subject of security has largely focused on terrorism, according to Denis Luyten, security consultant at UITP, “because the European Commission considered terrorism the most serious threat, and the thinking was that if you deal with that, it will also present solutions for all other security problems.” This, he adds, is both true and not true. “Yes, terrorism is violence, but it’s a different kind of violence to the kind operators deal with every day. The solutions are not the same.

This distinction must be emphasised between criminal activities and terrorism. Both seek to exploit the security weaknesses of transportation, but for very different reasons. Terrorism seeks to disrupt systems and institutions in order to force political or religious agendas. In this case, public transport is a target. Criminal activities, on the other hand, seek an economic return from illegal transactions such as drugs, weapons, piracy and illegal immigration. In this context, public transport is just a vector for crime.

Public space, public problem?

Operators are less likely to point to terrorism threats as their main security concern. That’s because the daily security problems that they face are rarely terrorism-related. So what are these problems?

Graffiti, vandalism, anti-social behavior, metal theft… these make up the daily workload of security managers. They are time-consuming and difficult to fight because they are mostly social problems.

“The public treat public transport like it’s a public space,” says Mr. Luyten, “and operators are faced with all the problems that come with that. But operators shouldn’t have to manage society’s problems. Their concern is to carry passengers from point A to point B, in safe conditions while trying to make some money. The authorities should be tasked with dealing with social problems.” However, thanks to budget cuts, the authorities are re-assigning responsibility for these security issues to the operators.

Security versus the perception of security

In the past, dummy cameras were sufficient to engender a feeling of safety among passengers. However, the mentality of operators has changed significantly in recent decades thanks to rising social problems such as drug abuse, vandalism and aggressive behavior. Operators began to invest in technological solutions, most notably CCTV, which can provide evidence in criminal investigations.

Now the big problem we are dealing with is what to do with CCTV pictures? How long are we allowed to keep them? Who is allowed look at them? These are data privacy questions, ethical questions that change from region to region,” says Mr. Luyten.

Regional problems, regional solutions

Day-to-day operational problems are similar around the globe, though different regions have their own particularities and priorities. In Asia, for example, cybercrime is much higher on the agenda than in Europe. In Europe, security managers are only beginning to realise that cybercrime solutions need to be fully integrated in their global security programmes. This is because the fight against cybercrime is related to both software (typically the remit of the IT department) and to the physical protection of IT infrastructure (the remit of the security department).

In North America, the problem of anti-social behaviour and assault on staff features at the top of the security agenda, but so does the theft of tracks and telephone cabling for copper (as well as the recent trend of stealing catalytic converters from vehicles parked at stations, for the precious metals they contain).

If you go to Singapore in the metro, nobody throws anything on the floor,” says Mr. Luyten. “It’s a cultural thing. But also if you litter in the metro in Singapore, they have so many cameras that within a day, they find out who you are from the official register and you receive a fine in the post.
In the UK, people will follow instructions quite readily. They will get in a queue or they will evacuate, but it’s is not so easy in other countries. The use of dogs to detect explosives is okay in Spain, Greece or Portugal, for example, but in other parts of the world it would be unacceptable, though that could change. It has a lot to do with cultural differences.

People tend to think that security is all about restriction,” adds Mr. Luyten, “when in fact, security is about ensuring people can go wherever they want to go… safely.”


  • A special security dossier has been put together by UITP’s librarians to provide further reading on the topics presented this month on on the subject of security in public transport. Members of UITP can gain full access to the range of hand-selected security-related publications on Mobi+, UITP’s online library by clicking here.
  • For more information contact Denis Luyten, denis.luyten(at)


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