While the U.S. cracks down on security at airports in the wake of the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, more travelers are turning to trains and buses, which experts see as easy--though unlikely--targets.
Thousands of passengers daily board intercity trains and buses without having to pass through a metal detector or send their luggage through an X-ray machine. The same scenario plays out every day in major urban areas, where millions of commuters move freely on local buses and trains.
"International terrorists would look for a target of more national dimension. Airplanes are a favorite because it creates such a sensational effect," said M. Cherif Bassiouni, a DePaul University law professor and international terrorism expert. "If you blow up a plane in the air or crash it into a building, there is no escape. It engenders a great deal of fear with the public and a great deal more attention by the media."
Derailing a train or detonating a bomb in a crowded commuter station such as Chicago's Union Station would not cause the same number of casualties or have as much effect, though it would make many afraid to travel to their jobs.
"Is that a possibility? Sure it is," Bassiouni said. "However, that is the type of tactic that would mostly be used by urban guerrillas, groups like the SLA," the Symbionese Liberation Army, which in the 1970s advocated revolution against the U.S. government.
"In the U.S., the threat of urban guerrillas is virtually non-existent," he said.
Anthony Cordesman, a senior fellow and terrorism expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, expects future terrorist attacks will use different tactics.
"The next time they attack, it won't be using aircraft. The likelihood is they will use a different weapon, something to break up the predictability," Cordesman said, but there is nothing to indicate it will be mass transportation.
"It could be that [mass transit] or it could be public utilities, historical sites or the media. It could even be introducing hoof-and-mouth disease. Tightening security in one area will tend to push terrorists in other directions, but one act of mass terrorism does not predict the next occurrence."
For their part, ground transportation providers such as Amtrak, Greyhound, Metra and the Chicago Transit Authority say they have stepped up security since the Sept. 11 attacks, though they will give few specifics.
"We are working at our highest level of security, but we do not discuss any particulars of our security for obvious reasons," said Amtrak spokeswoman Mary Ann Lorimar, adding that the agency doesn't want to help anyone elude their measures.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, the FBI asked Amtrak and intercity bus operators to require passengers to show identification that matches the names on their tickets. Coin-operated storage lockers--eliminated at airports years ago because of bomb fears--were closed at Amtrak stations as well.
Those steps provided little assurance for Debbie Verg, an Amtrak passenger at Union Station last week. Verg was en route home to Ft. Collins, Colo., after returning from England aboard the Queen Elizabeth II.
"Checking identification means nothing," Verg said. "Anyone can have a fake ID or a fake passport."
Before boarding the QEII going to and from England, all her luggage, including her purse and other carry-on items, was X-rayed. When she boarded an Amtrak train in Philadelphia, there were only perfunctory questions about who packed the bags.
"There is no security here," Verg said, suggesting that Amtrak have the same screening as airlines. "I don't think it's a breech of our privacy for my luggage to have to go through metal detectors. I'm not a paranoid person, but I've been scared this whole trip. I'm keeping my fingers crossed until I get home."
Amtrak says it is not aware of plans by the federal government to require metal detectors or X-ray equipment at train stations.