Sep 27 2016

Proposed laws would expand travel controls from airlines to passenger railroads

Legislation has been introduced in both the USA and Belgium to subject rail travelers to the same sorts of travel surveillance schemes that are already being used to monitor and control air travelers.

If these proposals are enacted into law, passenger railroads would be required to collect and enter additional information such as passport or ID numbers and dates of birth (not currently required or routinely included in US or European train reservations) in Passenger Name Records (PNRs), and transmit rail travel itineraries and identifying information about passengers to the government, in advance.

As is already the case for all airline travel in the USA, including domestic travel, railroads would be forbidden to allow any passenger to board unless and until the railroad receives an explicit, affirmative, individualized, per-passenger, per-flight permission-to-board message (“Boarding Pass Printing Result”) from the government.

In both the USA and Belgium, the proposed legislation would create legal conflicts with civil liberties and human rights, and practical conflicts with railroad business processes and IT capabilities.

So far as we have heard, Belgium is the first country in Europe to consider expanding PNR-based air travel surveillance and control to rail travel. A year ago, the Belgian government proposed such a rail travel surveillance and control scheme to a European ministerial summit on rail travel “security”. Later in 2015, when the Belgian Parliament approved a PNR-based scheme for monitoring and control of air travel, the government said it intended to expand it to all modes of transport as soon as working agreements could be reached with railroad, bus, and ferry companies. True to its word, the Belgian government introduced its rail PNR proposal in the national legislature on September 19th of this year, almost as soon as the Belgian law on airline PNRs had gone into effect.

In addition to criticism from the Belgian Human Rights League (Ligue Belges des Droits de l’Homme), the Belgian rail PNR proposal has prompted immediate expressions of “grave” practical concern from passenger rail operators and rail passenger advocacy groups in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe:

Operators would be expected to collect and submit information on all travellers 24 h in advance, which would preclude same-day ticket sales and completely destroy any prospect of a walk-on service competitive with other surface transport modes.

Operators and user groups in several countries have expressed concern to their respective governments… The European Commission and European Parliament are holding urgent talks to discuss the proposal. The Community of European Railways and European Passenger Federation have also questioned the practicality and impact of the regulation.

A report commissioned by the Landsec advisory group for the [European] Commission’s transport directorate DG Move is understood to have found that extending PNR to rail services would be ‘a complete waste of time’, according to one insider….

In practical terms, the introduction of PNR requirements would seriously damage the viability of Thalys and ICE services linking Brussels with Paris, Amsterdam and Koeln [Cologne, Germany], where experiments in passenger segregation and security checks at stations introduced after the Paris attacks last year have reportedly already been abandoned as impractical and not effective. It would also make it impossible for SNCB [the Belgain national passenger railway] or its neighbouring railways to operate cross-border regional passenger trains, affecting many local travellers travelling regularly between towns and cities in border areas. Such travellers would probably be displaced to private cars, for which no such security measures are envisaged.

Back in the USA, Senators including the chair of the Senate Committee on Transportation have introduced S. 3379, the Surface Transportation and Maritime Security Act.  Section 15 of this bill, “Passenger Rail Vetting“, would require the TSA to act within six months on any request by Amtrak to expand the TSA’s “Secure Flight” traveler surveillance and control scheme “or a similar passenger vetting system” to Amtrak passengers.

It’s a peculiarly-worded mandate to the TSA, given that Amtrak has never publicly asked the TSA to expand “Secure Flight” to rail travel, and given that neither S. 3379 nor any other pending Amtrak or TSA appropriation bill would provide any funding for such a costly program expansion.

Implementation of “Secure Flight” or any similar passenger “vetting” and permission-based control of Amtrak travel would require additional legislation of dubious Constitutionality or consistency with human rights treaty law. Airlines have argued that they aren’t really common carriers, and the TSA has argued that individuals have no right to travel by air.  But unlike privately-owned (although Federally-licensed) airlines, Amtrak is a creature of the Federal government. Like the U.S. Postal Service, it has a legal duty to serve all would-be customers. If there is a single interstate passenger transportation provider in the USA that cannot escape being categorized and required to operate as a common carrier, it’s Amtrak.

Amtrak is often the carrier of last resort for people without documents. Amtrak’s conditions of carriage purport to require passengers to show government-issued ID credentials on demand. In practice, Amtrak staff almost never enforce this requirement, and often privately criticize it. Most Amtrak employees see their job as serving travelers, not surveilling them, and facilitating their travels rather than interfering with their right to travel. That’s what it means to work for a transportation company, not to work as a spy or for a police agency. We salute all the Amtrak employees who have taken part for many years in this quiet but widespread and effective groundswell of disregard for illegal orders.

Amtrak has prepared internal assessments of some of the information technology and business costs that it would incur to apply “Secure Flight” or a similar “vetting” system to its domestic passengers, but has not yet made them public. Many of these assessments are included in the Amtrak records we requested under the Freedom of Information Act in 2014 but are still only gradually receiving in redacted form.

The latest batch of documents we received in response to our request includes records of IT and business-process changes which were required to implement a similar scheme for the small number of Amtrak international (USA-Canada) trains, and a scoping project to assess requirements to expand this to domestic trains.

Ten years ago, in 2006, Amtrak was already trying to figure out what it would take to mandate the collection of the date of birth and ID number of each domestic Amtrak passenger:


Problems described in this and the previous batches of Amtrak records we’ve received include major changes to data structures and business processes to provide an individual ticket and individual name and record for each member of a group. Previously, space for an entire Amtrak group was routinely booked and ticketed as a block, specifying only the itinerary and number of passengers to be transported. Names of group members weren’t required, much less any other data about them.  This is also the way group air travel used to work, and remains the norm for groups of passengers booked by tour operators on European trains.

Amtrak operates its own proprietary reservation database, “ARROW”. But travel agents can make Amtrak reservations (or reservations for many European trains) and issue Amtrak tickets through the same computerized reservation systems that they use for airline reservations and ticketing. That means that any change to ARROW data structures — such as additional or newly-required data elements — requires changes in data-structures, line-command-formats, and GUIs in each of the big-four CRSs.  The records we’ve been receiving from Amtrak’s IT department show extensive correspondence with Amtrak’s liaisons at Sabre, Amadeus, Worldspan, and Galileo/Apollo regarding the implementation of name, date of birth, and ID requirements in international Amtrak PNRs.

There are no passenger trains between the USA and Mexico, so Amtrak only needs to inter-operate with VIA Rail Canada. Belgian and other European legislators should look carefully at the Amtrak example and scoping studies, keeping in mind that a far larger fraction of European rail travelers than of Amtrak passengers are crossing international borders, and that a much larger number of rail operators need to be integrated into any European rail PNR system.

2 thoughts on “Proposed laws would expand travel controls from airlines to passenger railroads

  1. Pingback: Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Controls on land travel vs. the right to free movement

  2. Pingback: Papers, Please! » Blog Archive » Amtrak lied to travel agents who questioned ID requirements

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