Happening Now

Transit Tech, Emerging Threats, & a New Age of Transpo Security

November 16, 2023

By M. Ned Butler / Communications Manager

This week I had the opportunity to attend ICS East, a security conference in New York City bringing together teams focused on the future of all facets of the security industry. From drones to bots, HD cameras to detection AI, personal protection to cybersecurity, there was such a fascinating variety of methodology and application. I presented the same questions to many vendors I approached, “Does your company work with transportation providers? Have you considered how what you’re presenting can be applied to passenger rail?”

The main response I received were folks talking about how their products can secure rail yards, reduce trespassing, and provide real time alerts to security teams in the event of an incident or fall onto active tracks. A number of security camera programs can now identify active shooter threats, strange patterns of movement and behavior, facial analysis to identify repeat trespassers, but one of the more interesting uses of this technology is to alert security personnel in the event of someone falling on to active tracks from a raised platform. This technology is already being applied by MTA, PATH and other underground service providers where the distance from the boarding area to the tracks below is too deep to quickly scramble from. By being able to detect these falls in real time and alert the appropriate crews, conductors can stop before it is too late, security can recover the fallen passenger, and fatal incidents can be avoided at a greater rate than ever before. Given that near misses and fatal collisions are avoidable traumas experienced by too many conductors, there has never been a better time to invest in this technology and protect the wellbeing of passengers and workers alike.

As I mulled over how this could really change the way we interact with grade crossings, Operation Lifesaver track awareness efforts, and general reduction of rail fatalities, I watched a presentation on drones being used to monitor remote construction sites for highways and bridges. Could this technology be used to secure and monitor rail builds as well? Given the cost of the specialized equipment used by boring and tunneling teams, the steel and concrete and electric components of major projects, securing those building materials is pretty essential for stewards of taxpayer funds allocated through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

After touring the showroom and exhibits, I headed over to listen to the Keynote: The Evolving Threat Landscape: Protecting New York and New Jersey’s Critical Transportation Assets. Greg Ehrie, Chief Security Officer for the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, shared an in depth reflection on how the massive amount of multimodal and freight assets within the Port’s jurisdiction are protected. He described the management of over 2200 officers that comprise the Port Police force, the largest group of transportation specific security professionals in the United States, about 1700 more than Amtrak.

Ehrie went on to describe how threats have changed since his time with the Air Force and FBI. There has been a shift in focus to how domestic threats have become more prevalent with an increase in active shooter incidents all over the country. He approached the subject with a unique lens of nuance, compassion, integrity, and honesty. These threats exist and following strategic plans to mitigate and neutralize potential incidents before they even occur provides safety and peace for passengers who may never be aware there was an issue to begin with. Ehrie also discussed how to provide service without disruptions during peaceful protests and social movements. Whether someone is engaged in exercising their First Amendment rights or simply trying to get from A to B, they are all passengers deserving of a safe return home. Having newly appointed CSO Greg Ehrie at the helm of this team will be a tremendous step in galvanizing a relationship of trust between workers, passengers, and Port Authority leadership.

Once the Keynote presentation wrapped, I was able to join Greg backstage for a quick interview. In good spirits, and open to hearing directly from RPA leadership, we dove into it:

Ned Butler: For someone who is interested in getting into transit security, what are some of the ways you’d advise them to break into the industry? We have a growing number of younger members and supporters who are pursuing jobs in rail and adjacent sectors.

Greg Ehrie: Wow, that’s a great question. Certainly not all encompassing but most colleges and education sources have courses and degrees to study security, even specifically rail security or other types. It's so important to have that foundation, that education behind it. But, that’s not the only way to get into the field. In my former life at the FBI, we didn't hire former FBI agents to be FBI agents, we trained people from all walks of life, because you want that diversity. But in the security field the traditional ways are military, law enforcement, and private security. Get in and build an education from the basics. You have to understand what you’re looking at. Security, much like rail, can be specialized. It used to just be ‘I’m security’ now it's ‘I'm rail security, or I'm aviation security’ so I’d say if somebody has a specific interest, study it, become educated in it and try to find employment in the field. It doesn’t have to be the security piece, but if you want to be involved in rail, find a way to be a part of it. See what other pieces are out there and how you fit into the system.

NB: So the Port Authority has over 2200 Law Enforcement Officers, the largest transportation force, bigger than Amtrak, BART, etc. What are the biggest challenges or unique obstacles for your team committed to protecting passengers that may not be faced by other entities?

GE: As I mentioned, it is a large piece of the security program 2200 is a lot of people. We can’t always have specialists. It’s not a neighborhood, we have not only our PATH rail system to protect but many facets. So, those same cops responsible for rail could be responsible for responding to aviation the next day. We have cops specialized here at the Port Authority, they are Aircraft Rescue Firefighters. So one of the additional duties these cops have is to be responsible for driving these giant trucks if an aircraft crashes, rescuing passengers when the Fire Department can’t do it. So there’s some serious complexity, but we all work together to do it. You have to be a master of all things and really understand the work.

NB: Within the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the rail portion was largely drafted and supported by my team and our colleagues. Looking at capital investments, allocations, major projects, how much of that post-BIL push to revitalize critical infrastructure affects your team? When taking on a major tunnel project, does that put stress on the security team? Does it affect the bandwidth, hiring, or development of security professionals as super expensive equipment and costly materials are brought on to property or kept at job sites under your jurisdiction?

GE: That’s an excellent question. As you’ve seen, we’re starting the Gateway Project which the Port is participating in, but it’s not our project. So what I’ve seen, especially in my time with the Port, is that sometimes these projects are developed and put into place completed, and then they say ‘Wait, what about security? What about that?’ and it’s not baked into the project. Which makes it infinitely more difficult because now you’re going backwards. The worst case would be, ‘Hey, that nice thing you built? Tear it down because we have to put security cameras in there.’ so we’re seeing a lot more forward-thinking. People are saying, ‘Before you do anything, how can we secure this? What steps are we going to take?’ Everything is better when you bake that security piece in, when it’s an integral part of the construction, cause then we can evolve with that project. But when the project is already going on, it provides difficulties for every level of security. Because now we’d have big expensive machines, people building, and if there’s a protest or someone trying to do damage, we have to secure that – and it’s in addition to what we are already doing. So I think that adds to it, and the way to combat it is pre-planning. So we need to work with police, with security apparatus before the project starts. Not only do we protect a project that’s completed, we can protect projects that are ongoing.

NB: Well, I can hear your background in project management coming through there, you sound like so many of my teachers in college. Pre-planning is so essential to a good result on these massive projects.

GE: Yeah, I’ve just seen projects in the past where it's like ‘well that's great, but how much is it gonna cost to plop security in on top of that?’ Nobody wants to spend a million dollars just to realize they forgot the cameras. It’s infinitely harder.

NB: That’s such a good point. So, last question… If you could share anything about your role, your experience thus far as someone new to the Port Authority, what would you like passengers to know if you could speak with them directly from the position of CSO?

GE: Perfect end question! I’d say this: Everyone is part of the security process. We are providing, and when I say ‘we’, I mean all security professionals, law enforcement, private security, are really committed to providing rail passengers, and other transit passengers, the safest experience they can have, but they need to be a part of the process. It sounds very easy, it’s not overused, but “See Something? Say Something.” If you have a concern, tell somebody. Too often we’ve seen what happens when there is an accident or a tragedy or violence. We talk to people afterwards who say ‘you know, I thought so’ or ‘I thought something was wrong’ or ‘maybe’ and we could have stopped that so don’t just be a bystander, tell us and get involved.

NB: Thanks for sharing that with us, and thank you for your time today.

So as we watch the RFPs, NOFOs, grants and funding allocated to various projects, we advocates should leave room for supporting security needs. We should be proactive at the local and regional levels to support the integration of emerging security technology for rail transit through effective policy for the good of the passenger. A great trip is one without disruption and, thanks to the many hardworking people across the security industry, we can all rest easy onboard, assured that our access to mobility and freedom to traverse the country is protected by those who truly care for our collective wellbeing.