A team established in the wake of last year's nerve gas attack on Tokyo underground is to begin patrolling the Tube network later this month, the Independent on Sunday learned yesterday.
Equipped with nerve gas detectors and protective clothing similar to the "Noddy" suits used in the Gulf War, the team of five will make unannounced checks on stations to get the public used to their presence. Plans are also being drawn up for a practice mass evacuation of Oxford Circus station, according to a senior military source.
The move follows a fact-finding mission to Japan last year, after a Sarin gas attack by the Aum Shinrikyo doomsday sect killed 11 people and injured nearly 4,000 on the Tokyo underground.
Senior officers from the Ministry of Defence, scientists from the Chemical Defence Establishment at Porton Down and Desmond O'Brien, the British Transport Police chief constable, visited Tokyo to formulate strategies for protecting British underground networks, which include Newcastle-upon- Tyne and Glasgow.
Until now, police have stressed there is no specific intelligence of an impending terrorist attack. Yesterday, however, a senior MoD source said: "It has been known for some time that certain IRA elements have a contingency plan to attack the Underground system. We believe that two activists have, in fact, travelled to Japan in the past year so it was important to be ready for any eventuality."
The launch of the new measure coincides with this weekend's elections in Northern Ireland. The source added: "If the peace process goes pear- shaped then the task force will be up and running."
A spokesman for London Transport Police said: "We have always been aware that we are a natural target for the IRA. In the light of the Japanese attack we have had to look carefully at the possibility of a similar attack in London and officers have been trained to use anti-chemical warfare equipment." A recent incident when a cable caught fire and parts of the Underground system had to be evacuated showed emergency procedures were operating effectively, he said. "London Underground staff are very good. The Kings Cross fire has shown they can't afford not to be."
An MoD spokesman said: "A delegation went to Japan to examine the Sarin gas used in the Tokyo attack. Personnel were there to establish how the illness develops and what cure for it could be found."
Britain's defence and police services have been concerned about the potentially devastating effect of a chemical weapons attack on London's underground since the 1930s, as the threat of an attack from Germany grew.
Documents released in the Public Records Office under the Thirty Year rule have revealed that a bacterial dispersion test was carried out on the Northern Line in 1963. One July lunchtime, a scientist dropped a small face-powder tin, containing 30g of the "non-pathogenic" bacterium Bacillus globigii, from the window of a train travelling between Collier's Wood and Tooting Broadway stations, in south London.
Over the next fortnight, London Transport workers collected air and dust samples throughout the Tube network. The report concluded that "bacterial spores can be carried for several miles in the Tube system". Spores were found as far north as Camden Town station, 10 miles from Tooting.Reuse content