After Foiled Mass Shooting, France Examines Train Safety

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French officials are hosting an emergency meeting on train security in Paris. Saturday's meeting follows last week's thwarted mass shooting against passengers on a high-speed train bound for Paris.

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Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

One thing is certain about the man who boarded a Paris-bound train last week with an assault rifle, handgun and ammunition clips. If he had tried to board a plane that way, he would have been stopped. Sorry, sir, you can't keep that in your carry-on. Airlines screen passengers in a way that very few European trains do. Securing Europe's vast rail network is considered next to impossible, in fact. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports on why.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Paris's Gare du Nord is Europe's busiest train station, with more than 200 million passengers a year and trains departing to international destinations such as London, Brussels and Amsterdam. The Gare du Nord feels like a small city. Sue Mansfield is travelling back to London on the high-speed Eurostar with her family. She says despite last week's attack, she doesn't believe more screening and checkpoints are the answer.

SUE MANSFIELD: There's a limit to how much security can be effective. I mean, if people want to do something, there are so many ways they can do it. And we all want speed and to get from A to B as quick as possible.

BEARDSLEY: The Eurostar and a few lines in Spain are the only trains in Europe that screen passengers and their luggage. Belgian businessman Gary Maier is on the platform to board Thalys, the high-speed train to Brussels and Amsterdam, the same one the gunman took last week. There are no security checks here, and Maier believes it's better that way.

GARY MAIER: I think we're quite happy with what we have here. It's a good train. It's a fast train. And there are so many people going on this train.

BEARDSLEY: There are billions of rail passengers a year in Europe. The accessibility and convenience of rail travel has made it popular and vulnerable. This week, the head of the German police union said the public shouldn't expect heightened security on Deutsche Bahn trains because they don't have the staff. His deputy was quoted as saying they didn't even have enough police to tackle pickpockets.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GUILLAUME PEPY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Speaking on a TV talk show, Guillaume Pepy, the head of the French rail service, the SNCF, said that passengers now need to be vigilant and on the lookout for bizarre behavior.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEPY: (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: But the French need to be assured they're safe when they get on a train, interrupted the interviewer. Can you not assure them?

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PEPY: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Just look at the recent terrorist attack not very far from us on a beach in Tunisia, said Pepy. You can't put metal detectors on a beach. Pepy said French rail was setting up a hotline to report suspicious passengers. To those who would suggest screening rail passengers, Christophe Naudin, a criminologist and aviation security specialist, says forget it. He says France screens a hundred million air passengers a year at a cost of a billion dollars. There are 6 billion rail passengers in France.

CHRISTOPHE NAUDIN: Let's suppose we only screen 2 billion passengers for the high-speed train. It would cost $20 billion. Don't think about that.

BEARDSLEY: Naudin says the future of security will not be about scanning more luggage but about verifying the identities of passengers. And the French interior minister said this week that high quality intelligence is the only answer. With individual terrorist attacks multiplying, there is a dark realization across Europe that individuals must play a role and take some responsibility for their security. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.