How Sophisticated are Terrorist Attacks on Passenger Rail Transportation?

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MTI researchers use MTI National Transportation Security Center database to examine sophisticated v. amateur transportation terrorist attacks
July 1, 2020
San José, CA

As people start to return to their workplaces after the COVID-19 pandemic lockdown, indicators suggest that passenger rail transportation continues to be a target for terror attacks.

A new report, How Sophisticated are Terrorist Attacks on Passenger Rail Transportation from the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI), concludes that while such attacks are statistically rare (an average of seven a year in economically advanced countries), uncovered plots and attempts suggest they remain important targets for terrorists. 

“The key questions for those running or protecting transport systems and for the public are: who the terrorists are and their level of sophistication? Are they experienced professionals obtaining inside information, penetrating security, creating complicated bombs or instruments of sabotage and executing simultaneous attacks with near precision? Or, are they more likely to be amateurs, sometimes mentally disturbed volunteers with limited resources or little knowledge yet manage mostly spontaneous and single attacks with few casualties?” asked Brian Michael Jenkins, the report’s leading author.

The MTI team used its National Transportation Security Center database to examine 346 attacks against passenger rail and bus targets in 27 developed countries since 1970. They defined “sophisticated attacks” as needing to exhibit at least one of the following four attributes: 

  • Use of inside information
  • Sophisticated explosive or sabotage devices
  • Penetration of active security measures
  • Simultaneous attacks by a team against multiple targets on the same day and at the same time. 

Co-author, Bruce Robert Butterworth, explained, “Slaughter does not require sophistication, and the deadliest attacks are seldom sophisticated. Looking at recent trends it was clear that few of the terrorist attacks on public surface transport were sophisticated. None involved penetrating any formidable security measures. Unlike aviation, train transport systems are by nature more accessible, and therefore more susceptible to attacks.”

“Terrorists attack “soft targets,” thus there is little need to obtain inside information, penetrate security systems, create sophisticated devices, or use cleverly concealed or undetectable chemicals. This does not mean that the possibility of more sophisticated attacks on transportation should be ignored. It simply underscores the broader conclusion that terrorist attacks on these targets are rarely sophisticated – they don’t have to be,” adds Butterworth.

The report states that terrorists attack rail systems to create public alarm, cause widespread disruption and inconvenience, and impose costs on the national economy. However, Jenkins and Butterworth are quick to add that commuters should be alert but not fearful. MTI has previously proven that security awareness programs such as “see something, say something” (“See It. Say It. Sorted”- UK) work. MTI has also endorsed selective screening, Vapor-wake Detection K9 teams, and ever-advancing technology that can detect explosives in crowds.


At the Mineta Transportation Institute (MTI) at San Jose State University (SJSU) our mission is to increase mobility for all by improving the safety, efficiency, accessibility, and convenience of our nation's transportation system. Through research, education, workforce development and technology transfer, we help create a connected world. MTI was founded in 1991 and is funded through the US Departments of Transportation and Homeland Security, the California Department of Transportation, and public and private grants. MTI is affiliated with SJSU’s Lucas College and Graduate School of Business.


Brian Michael Jenkins is the Director of the Mineta Transportation Institute’s Allied Telesis National Transportation Security Center and since 1997 has directed the Institute’s continuing research on protecting surface transportation against terrorism and other serious forms of crime.


Bruce R. Butterworth is a Senior Transportation Security Researcher at MTI and former Director of Aviation Security Operations at the Federal Aviation Administration. Bruce has taken a leading role in creating MTI’s unique database of attacks on public surface transportation.

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Irma Garcia, MTI Communications & Operations Manager



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