Massacre of Hindu train passengers by Sikh terrorists – December 26, 1991

Train security is generally understated which makes you wonder why there are not more terrorist attacks on these modes of transportation.

I love taking the train. Maybe this joy stems from my Canadian heritage: after all the transCanadian train is legendary in my country and its completion is seen as a major part of nation-building. Whenever I can I use this mode of transportation to get where I need to go.

Iconic Canadian photo of the ‘Last Spike’ (1885)

As a counter terrorism specialist what I find curious is the almost total lack of security getting on a train. No metal detectors, no body scans, nary a check at all. I just show my ticket, board my car and wait for my glass of scotch in VIA first class (but not when I take the morning train to Toronto!).

I do not want to be accused of giving terrorists ideas but I am frankly surprised at why they do not target trains more often. Think about it: lots of people confined to a small space with nowhere to go. Is there a more lucrative target (other than aircraft but that industry has made it very hard to plan a terrorist attack)?

Yes, there have been attempts in the past. Recently (2017) a suspect was fatally shot at Brussels Central Station after a failed bombing and on August 21, 2015 a Moroccan national attacked a train with 500 passengers onboard en route from Brussels to Paris. This assault was famously thwarted by three Americans and the incident was later made into a movie by Clint Eastwood.

The VIA plotters (Photo: National Post)

We in Canada also had a bizarre plot back in 2013 when Chiheb Esseghaier and Jaed Raser had a plan to derail a New York-Toronto train. These two were not the sharpest pencils in the box however as they were picked up by train security personnel while walking alongside the tracks doing a recce for their action. They were found guilty of planning a terrorist attack.

1991 Punjab killings

On December 26, 1991 a group of Sikh separatists made their way through a hijacked passenger train in Punjab state and systematically shot Hindu passengers, leaving at least 49 dead and 20 wounded. Four men took out AK-47 automatic rifles and began stalking through the train firing at anyone who appeared to be a Hindu: six other armed terrorists climbed aboard the train at a later crossing and joined in the massacre.

The attack was part of a long campaign for Sikh independence, marred by many terrorist attacks and counter actions by the Indian military. Sikhs had carried out a similar siege on a train in June 1991.

An Indian train similar to those attacked by Sikh terrorists

Does this mean we should up security for train travel? Not necessarily. I for one do not want to make getting on a train as onerous as getting on a place. Besides, we cannot create a 100% secure society (as I argued in a piece on plans for metal detectors at Ottawa’s City Hall).

Yes I will continue to take the train from Ottawa to Toronto on a regular basis. No hassle, not much longer than flying (when you figure on security checks at airports) and cheaper for business class. So expect more blogs from me as I sit admiring the countryside on a VIA Canada train.

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