‘Unprecedented’ collaboration among Canada, US agencies preempted alleged terror plot

A VIA Rail train leaves Union Station, the heart of VIA Rail travel, bound for Windsor on April 22, 2013 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Ian Willms/Getty Images

Thankfully, attacks like an alleged plot by two men to derail a passenger train bound for New York from Toronto remain extraordinarily rare. Perhaps, luckily too.

In contrast to the enormous security measures that guard airports and aircraft in a post-9/11 world, railways remain easy targets for those seeking to inflict senseless violence, comments from experts suggest.

“In this case, it’s hard to defend against something like this,” Hunter Austegard, director of HCRQ Inc., a rail safety consultancy in Williamsburg, Virgina, said.

While Canadian authorities aren’t saying much about a plan allegedly hatched by Chiheb Esseghaier of Montreal and Raed Jaser of Toronto, RCMP officials disclosed Monday it involved a VIA rail train travelling between Toronto’s Union Station and New York City 550 kilometres south east.

Hundreds of kilometres of track along the route are left unmonitored.

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Camera surveillance is by far the best deterrent against rail lines being attacked, Austegard said. But the vast expanses that railroads traverse across rural Canada and the United States make the proposal economically and operationally “impossible,” he said.

That leaves ceaseless, preemptive investigative work by various agencies of governments and law enforcement officials and constant communication with rail operators as the first and realistically only line of defence.

“It’s something you have to have a constant vigil on,” Robert VanderClute, senior vice-president of safety and operations for the Association of American Railroads, said.

“We work with authorities on a regular basis, through weekly calls, we work with [the Department of Homeland Security], TSA [Transportation Security Administration],” he said. “And we work with their Canadian counterparts.”

Crediting “unprecedented cooperation” between law enforcement, which involved federal, provincial and municipal units, and the security teams at VIA Rail and CN Rail, VIA officials said in a brief statement that “at no time was there an imminent threat to passengers, employees or the general public.”

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The investigative efforts that led to the arrests of Esseghaier and Jaser – who are alleged to have been working with the support of al-Qaeda – involved 15 agencies engaged in “exceptional collaborative efforts,” RCMP officials said Monday, including the FBI, the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, Canada Border Services and seven municipal police departments in the Greater Toronto and Montreal areas.

Watch the video below: Terror plot questions

The two accused face a bail hearing Tuesday.

“Charges include conspiring to carry out an attack against, and conspiring to murder persons unknown for the benefit of, at the direction of, or in association with a terrorist group,” a statement from the RCMP said.

VIA has an agreement with U.S. train operator Amtrak allowing each company to run routes between Toronto’s Union Station and New York’s famed Penn Station, with stops in Albany and Buffalo.

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Officials for the Crown company, which said it moves about 4 million people annually with its busiest routes being between Windsor and Quebec City, declined to speak about the matter further on Monday, saying VIA does not “comment on law enforcement activities.”

However, the company did say it acknowledges “the work and dedication of the agencies involved.”

Other agencies and organizations that took part in the efforts leading up to the arrests also declined to elaborate further on Monday.

The Association of American Railroads’ VanderClute noted that the broad-based efforts to snuff out the plot also involved the AAR.

“We do have a security group that is well aware of the issues,” he said. “They were working on this earlier, well before the news broke.”

Watch the video below: RCMP address arrests made in alleged Canadian terror plot

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