London transport network still a vulnerable target

London’s buses and underground trains will remain vulnerable to terrorist attacks for a long time, the city’s transport chiefs said, one year on from the lethal suicide bombings of July 7.

Those working to protect the British capital’s transport network “have not found the magic formula any more than Madrid, New York, Tel Aviv or Paris”, said Tim O’Toole, managing director of London Underground.

He was referring to the sites of major terrorist attacks in recent years.

About 67,7-million people travel through London Heathrow, the world’s busiest international airport, annually, while nearly a billion journeys are made on the Underground.

“The weak point about public transport is that it is open to everybody,” O’Toole said.

Four suicide bombers targeted three London Underground trains and a bus in coordinated attacks on July 7 last year, killing themselves and 52 others and injuring about 700 more.

Britain will pause for reflection on Friday, the first anniversary of the country’s worst terrorist atrocity, to remember the victims.

Over the past 12 months, London transport authorities have tested several security measures including body scanners, airport-style metal detectors and X-ray devices better to secure the network.

None of these options, however, is ready to be rolled out in the near future, transport officials said.

At the same time, a host of changes have been introduced on the Underground since the bombings.

The 12 000 security cameras on the network — a world record — are slowly being replaced by higher-grade equipment, offering clearer images and able to alert the control centre automatically when bags are left lying around or people walk against the flow of traffic.

Above all, “we are better prepared to confront a crisis unfolding at several locations simultaneously”, said Mike Brown, London Underground’s chief operating officer.

The communication system below ground has been entirely reassessed. The suicide blasts damaged the radio system and emergency services were unable to talk to each other because there was no shared radio network.

Above ground, emergency staff were left trying to contact each other on the saturated mobile telephone network.

In the absence of the “magic formula”, London Transport is relying on the human factor.

London Underground, which employs about 12 560 staff and incorporates 375 stations, wants to capitalise on the automation of some of its lines to put more people in direct contact with passengers.

There have been many public calls for a bigger police presence on “the Tube”. The number of officers deployed on the Underground is rising from 500 to 700. But when the bombs exploded, fewer than 100 officers were on duty on the network.

“Our greatest concern is keeping staff and passengers constantly vigilant,” said Brown.

The challenge seems tough: suspect packages now trigger between 10 and 20 alerts per week on the Underground — compared with 80 during the first months after the bombings. — AFP

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