Via Rail mulls tighter security after alleged terror plot
Raed Jaser and Chiheb Esseghaier face terrorism-related charges
Taking a train in Canada could soon become more like boarding an airplane as Via Rail considers greater scrutiny of checked baggage, more inspections by sniffer dogs and security checks on passengers.
The measures — outlined in documents released under the Access to Information Act — are being considered in direct response to the alleged terrorist plot to derail a train that led to arrests in April, said Jacques Gagnon, a Via Rail spokesman.
"We were already doing a lot, we are doing more now, and we could do even more," Gagnon said in an interview.
Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal, face terrorism-related charges for allegedly plotting to derail a Via passenger train. A third man, Ahmed Abassi, was arrested in the United States in connection with the purported scheme.
Jaser's lawyer has denied the allegations against his client. Essighaier has refused to recognize the Criminal Code and has said he wants a lawyer who will use the Qur'an to judge him instead. He has not been successful, but has qualified for legal aid. The case is scheduled to return to court later this month.
Working group set up
The alleged plot is said to have targeted a train that travels from New York City to Ontario, operated by U.S. rail service Amtrak south of the border and Via Rail staff in Canada.
Via Rail security officials were advised of the RCMP's investigation in August 2012 and provided information to the Mounties. In response to the alleged threat, the train service added security guards at strategic locations across Canada, hired extra security officers and briefed its employees.
It also set up a working group to study possible further changes.
At a House of Commons committee in May, a senior Via Rail official said the train service was considering whether to ask all of its travellers for identification before they board, which does not take place routinely.
Gagnon says the idea — including regular checks of passenger names against security databases — is still being studied, but could be a "fairly expensive proposition" given that Via serves 450 communities spanning 12,500 kilometres of track.
"We're not yet there."
'Trained to detect body language'
Via Rail currently does random searches and X-rays of baggage, uses sniffer dogs at stations and observes passengers for tell-tale signs of suspicious behaviour, Gagnon said. "Our employees are trained to detect body language."
Some security provisions have been intensified in recent months, while others could be developed further, he said.
Via Rail briefing notes prepared in May — released this month to The Canadian Press under the access law — indicate the passenger train service is looking at:
- Ensuring all checked baggage can be linked to an on-board passenger, a standard practice for airlines;
- More frequent patrols by sniffer dogs to scrutinize baggage and conduct walkabouts in Montreal, Toronto, Quebec City, Ottawa and Vancouver;
- Additional security measures for the Via-Amtrak train during the Canadian leg of its journey, including mandatory identification checks on all passengers.
In addition, Via Rail has already implemented two ideas from the working group — beefed-up vigilance training for staff and stricter certification standards for members of the train service's safety, security and risk management division, Gagnon said.
Closer co-operation with Amtrak
There is no timeline for making additional improvements, though a status report is to be delivered at a Via Rail board meeting at the end of August in Saskatoon, he said.
Implementing new measures may require the rail service, a Crown corporation, to make a case to the federal treasury for necessary funds, Gagnon added. "We have to budget for those safety and security measures that are considered."
The arrests have also prompted closer co-operation with American counterpart Amtrak, which has paid particular attention to security since the 9-11 attacks.
"We've had discussions, meetings with Amtrak," Gagnon said. "We're working jointly."
Add the briefing notes: "Best practices on both sides of the border are being shared, and in the coming weeks and months many steps will be taken to strengthen our bond against a common menace."
In an emailed response to questions, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Cole said he could not provide details of security discussions with the Canadian train service.
"Amtrak has and will continue to communicate with our partners at Via Rail concerning ongoing safety initiatives to maintain the highest level of safety for all of our passengers."