Improbable Threats

Today, Bruce Schneier posted the winner of this year’s movie-plot threat competition, which reminded me of a highly improbable act of terrorism I’ve been thinking about for years. Wait, no – not thinking about like that… just a really improbable sort of attack that I’d be surprised if no authorities had considered the risk of – and am surprised that I couldn’t find any mention of even a single think-tank pondering the problem.

Every year in this country – and elsewhere in the world, I’m sure – railroad trains start dozens of grass and even forest fires, most of them fairly small. Obviously, seized and burning wheel bearings are a fairly uncommon occurrence, but sparks from wheels must be a pretty regular occurrence. That they don’t start more fires than they do suggests, arguably, that the overall risk of fires started by trains is fairly small.

On the other hand, anyone who’s ever tried to start a fire with flint and steel knows that trying to start a fire on purpose, under the best of circumstances, with a spark can be a challenge. You really need a lot of sparks – or better yet, an already-burning ember – to reliably start a fire.

Now, around here, I notice a lot of trains passing through the area contain hoppers full of coal, destined away for power plants I know not where. Coal burns, of course, quite nicely – and is relatively difficult to extinguish, or so I’m told. Coal hoppers – really “bulk goods” hoppers that just happen to have coal in them, I guess – are filled through their (open) tops, and emptied from the bottom.

So, here’s the nefarious plan: Terrorists, get a couple of road flares, or even molotov cocktails, wait for a dry spell in summer, and set railcars full of coal on fire. It’s low risk, has what appears to be a decent chance of success, requires minimal investment, and even if you don’t spark a wildfire, the act is still pretty darned mediapathic (just think of the photos of blazing railcars at night!). There’s no doubt people would notice the burning car eventually; by the time anything can be done, especially in rural parts of the country, the damage might already be done.

It’s probably pretty easy to protect against, as well – just put covers on the hoppers, like they do on grain barges. Alas, I’m pretty sure that refitting all the hoppers in service today would probably bankrupt half the railroads. If such an incident were to take place, federal grant money would probably be forthcoming in an unstoppable wave; until that time, we’ll just have to live in fear, I guess. Bummer…

Published in: General, Security | on May 15th, 2008| Comments Off on Improbable Threats

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