Agency Turf Accidentally Leads to Good Results

The government had always made conflicting statements on security theater on trains. In a town hall last year, President Obama bragged that high-speed trains do not require the passengers to take their shoes off. On the other hand, later that year Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano talked about tightening security on trains.

A few months ago, as reported by Trains magazine, the TSA converged on Savannah’s Amtrak station and did a full security check to all passengers disembarking the train through the main station hall. (Unlike on the Northeast Corridor, Savannah offers easy access to the train straight from the parking lot, without needing to pass through the station.)

Amtrak’s response to the incident was severe. Amtrak’s police chief said he had not been informed and did not even believe the incident was real, and when it was confirmed, he barred the TSA from Amtrak property. Amtrak will continue to do security on its own.

Bear in mind, this is pure agency turf. Amtrak cares little about best practices for train security, which is to not have any. Any passenger in France and Germany, and any passenger in Japan who can cross the faregates, can walk on a high-speed train without security; Japanese and German bullet trains have never been bombed, and French ones have been only bombed once, and the attack killed so few people (2) that terrorists never tried again. In contrast, at the major stations on the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak makes people queue single-file while checking tickets, in addition to staffing each train with multiple conductors to check tickets on board. Sometimes, boarding stands still while Amtrak police walk with trained dogs along the line of passengers; this happened to me at South Station two months ago.

However, this agency turf is in this case helpful to passengers. American railroad chiefs may be incompetent, but they are not evil. They do not wake up every morning thinking about new ways to harass passengers. Amtrak’s main loyalty is to its traditional way of doing things, and cares for neither outside reformers nor outside harassers.

The upshot is that for advocates of good transit, it creates openings for change. If such change can reliably be sold to people on the inside as doing things the normal way but with slight modification, then it can quickly become the new dogma in lieu of the traditions. Not everything can be so argued, but for some infrastructure projects as well as community-level questions, it can be a way to create a new consensus around good transit.


  1. JJJ

    The Obama statement on not having to remove shoes on trains infuriated me. He’s the godamn president, and was speaking about TSA security-theater like a volcano. “Sucks but thats nature”. Thats how entrenched the TSA security goons are. The fact is, Obama could easily issue an executive order disbanding the TSA.

  2. David Wells

    The comment was made: “The fact is, Obama could easily issue an executive order disbanding the TSA.”

    Sure, I agree with you, and Hitler could have easily disbanded the “brown boots” too! — but — he didn’t!
    Don’t forget to salute, when you pass a Democrat or a Republican politician in the hall – the are both responsible for the paranoia and the TSA!

  3. MobilMan

    Private security personnel patrol larger stations (where Federal police maintain a presence) in Germany and sometimes they check the tickets on the ‘rougher’ routes in lieu of conductors. But yes, no sniffing dogs as far as I know, no X-ray machines, no holdups.

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