How Sophisticated are Terrorist Attacks on Passenger Rail Transportation

How Sophisticated are Terrorist Attacks on Passenger Rail Transportation


Terrorist attacks on passenger rail in more economically advanced countries over the past 50 years are statistically rare events - an average of seven a year. However, uncovered plots and attempts indicate there is continuing terrorist interest in attacking public surface transportation targets. The important questions for those running transport systems or protecting them, and for the public, are who are the terrorists and how sophisticated are they? Are they like characters from a Tom Clancy novel, 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, who volunteered, have limited resources, know little, plan less, yet manage mostly spontaneous and single attacks that normally kill a few? This security perspective examines 346 attacks against passenger rail and bus targets in 27 developed countries since 1970 and finds that few of the attacks on public surface transport are sophisticated.



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.


June 2020


Safety and security