UK rail network 'could be soft target for attack'

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The rail watchdog warned last night of the risk of a terrorist attack on British train passengers as fears grew that the Madrid bombings were the work of al-Qa'ida sympathisers.

The rail watchdog warned last night of the risk of a terrorist attack on British train passengers as fears grew that the Madrid bombings were the work of al-Qa'ida sympathisers.

The nightmare for security chiefs assessing the risk to Britain is the multitude of "soft targets" that could be chosen by terrorists prepared to die for their cause and undiscriminating in who they kill. Experts point out that breaches of security at airports or biological attacks on government bodies can be thwarted, but it remains difficult to guard against terrorist attacks on rail systems.

Increased security in and around airports - demonstrated by the deployment of the Army to Heathrow twice last year - is likely to have shifted potential terrorists' targets to other parts of the national transport network.

Tom Winsor, the Rail Regulator, said: "The railway stations in Britain are vulnerable. Transport links generally are vulnerable." He said train operators were doing everything they could to deter bombers, by using closed-circuit television and removing litter bins, but it was impossible to provide complete protection.

"Surface land transport is vulnerable because you don't need to put the explosive device in a railway station or on a train. It could be on the track at any part of the national railway network," Mr Winsor said in a GMTV interview to be broadcast tomorrow.

Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail Maritime and Transport union, said: "We are concerned that the train-operating companies should undertake an urgent review of existing security measures and should ensure they employ directly recruited and vetted staff."

The London Tube system - with 275 stations, 153 miles of track and millions of passengers every week - could be particularly susceptible to an attack. Its security precautions were understood to be under review last night.

Security has been stepped up in recent months in Westminster and other so-called "picture postcard sites" in London. Scotland Yard has established armed teams that can be rapidly deployed to pick up terrorist suspects.

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