The Challenges of Securing Mass Transit Facilities

By David Sime and Hyong Cho

As anyone who has ever flown on a commercial airline since 2001 knows, security measures at airports are well enforced and the emphasis on traveler safety is all around the airport and its grounds.

Mass transportation, meanwhile, presents a special but not any less significant challenge when it comes to determining security issues. These facilities need to develop the means to protect a constantly changing and large population of passengers.

And unlike airports these facilities often have hundreds of points of entry and exit on multiple modes — buses, subways, light rail, commuter trains, even ferries.

About 2 million Americans will use the nation’s airways on a given work day, while 35 million people will board some form of public transportation. In fact, statistics have shown that nearly 11 billion trips are taken on public transportation every year.

Transit agencies across the US rely upon Apollo Video to provide a comprehensive solution for on-board video surveillance. Designed specifically for bus & rail applications, the RoadRunner™ system & ViM Software™ enhance fleet efficiency, reduce maintenance & operating costs, increase accessibility of data and mitigate risk & liability.
Image Credit: Apollo Video

In some large metropolitan areas in North America where mass transit is well established, more than 20 percent of the area’s inhabitants get around via public transportation.

For transportation officials and their security providers, solving the mass transit security issue begins with determining the key concerns and then creating the proper responses via security systems, policies and procedures to mitigate the risks.

Although vandalism and graffiti are very visible signs of criminal behavior in mass transit settings such as bus stops and subway stations, this is not where transportation officials typically focus their energy.

Fences and gates can secure out-of-service buses and train cars, as can remote surveillance methods to keep such vandalism at a minimum.

Instead, it is the day-to-day safety and security of transit riders and employees that should become the highest priority.

This begins with creating the safest environment possible that is highlighted with appropriate signage and, when necessary, audible warnings, and supporting that with technology, such as surveillance cameras, that will document what has happened if an incident occurs.

Incidents of concern within a transit setting can take several forms, ranging from legitimate accidents or crimes to false claims such as faked fall down the stairs to potential and actual suicides.

Security Monitoring the US Capitol Subway
Security Monitoring the US Capitol Subway (Image Credit: Wikimedia)

Bus and subway stations also have become magnets for homeless people who may put themselves and others in harm’s way by trying to access less secure public areas within a station as temporary shelters.

If someone is injured on a subway platform and the transit provider is held liable, it could be on the hook for hundreds of thousands, if not millions of dollars.

Suicides are a major concern for operators, with personnel now being trained to look for individuals who seem distressed, are loitering in the area or are intentionally putting themselves in a dangerous situation, such as standing too close to the edge of a platform.

The deployment of video analytics, which can be programmed to send alerts when certain pre-set actions occur, can help determine when such dangerous behaviors come into play.

Analytics can also be useful in alerting security about other suspicious behaviors at a transit stop, such as an untended bag or package or a person going into a restricted area.

Whether it is on the bus, train or ferry or at the stops themselves, cameras and intuitive video management systems are the key to both active and forensic transit security.

By using the proper cameras and recording systems in a transit environment, quick-acting personnel can locate a person of interest who boarded a train at one station, follow him during his trip and produce a crisp, clear identifiable image at the end.

Those setting up the system thus should keep in mind proper camera positioning, resolution and motion-based changes to frame rates or other compression settings.


A typical 30-foot bus often has six cameras—one each at the front and middle doors, two more within the bus and then one looking forward and another looking behind the bus.

The latter two are important in the event of accidents to verify liability.

Some cities use buses that are up to 60 feet long and those can be equipped with up to a dozen cameras.

Train cars are similarly equipped with two to four cameras to view activity down the center aisle. Within the stations themselves, there can be from 15 to 30 or more cameras capturing wide-angle shots.

Train stations, which have a restricted point of egress, often deploy high-definition cameras to better support facial recognition software to get that actionable image.

Although bandwidth and storage can be a concern, with motion-based recording, the resolution can be bumped up during event, resulting in a 1 megapixel stream jumping to 4 or even 8 mbps when needed.

By changing the resolution on demand, end users can cut their storage needs significantly.


Transportation settings often rely on the same technology used in other security installations, primarily mini dome cameras, although there are some mini transit domes built specifically for the environment with the proper aesthetics.

Because of vandalism threats, transit typically avoids pendant mounts, which can be more easily grabbed and damaged.

Temperature ratings for cameras also come into play in cold climates with cameras often getting outdoor exposure. As trains and buses move along their routes, especially those that service outlying areas, Internet connectivity becomes an issue as well.

Because it may be difficult for video to be sent in transit, security bus barns are equipped with wifi so video from onboard cameras can be downloaded at the end of the day. And the use of hardened recorders at the stations allows security personnel to retrieve recorded video.

Today’s new buses and trains are constructed with the cameras onboard and newer stations also take security into consideration at the earliest design stage.

Older infrastructure from long-standing subway and bus terminals can prove to be a challenge when adding security, but these issues aren’t insurmountable.

Transit bus station

Often the solution is to add more cameras to cover the same square footage because of less-than-ideal sight lines and to place conduit wherever it works best, which may mean positioning it under platforms or in other out-of-the-way places within older stations.

Looking ahead, transit security will continue to evolve, not only as new stations and modes of transportation are added to the system, but in terms of communicating with commuters.

David Sime, President of CONTAVA
David Sime, President of CONTAVA

People can expect to get mass notification alerts on their mobile devices, and those same devices can provide vital data to transportation entities to better develop their overall systems.

David Sime is president of CONTAVA, a security integration and IT company based in
Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.


Hyong Cho, Senior Account Executive, RFI
Hyong Cho, Senior Account Executive, RFI

Hyong Cho is senior account executive in the Revo, Nev., office of RFI Communications & Security Systems, a diversified multi-system integrator.

Both CONTAVA and RFI are members of Security-Net.