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The Global Rise of the Militarizing Metro
A new and growing approach to safety on public transit
Children play in a model MTR train carriage at Hong Kong Police College for National Security Education Day in 2021. Source: South China Morning Post
In spring of 2022, New York City Mayor Eric Adams proposed his city install metal detectors in subway stations to deter crime and shootings, such as the Sunset Park shooting which injured 29 people on a subway car in March. While Adams’ spokesperson later clarified the proposal was for a different, nascent detection technology, many on social media cast doubt on whether a metal detector on the subway would ever be feasible.12
To the possible surprise of New Yorker subway riders, metal detectors are already a common feature among Metro systems around the world. Judging by the ubiquity of metal detectors among Metro systems in China and India, it is likely there are more Metro systems opened in the 21st century with metal detectors at stations than those without.
In the past 10-15 years, a global phenomenon has loosely emerged across many of the biggest urban public transit systems: A growing number of mass transit systems are embracing new means to try to secure public safety which go beyond basic patrol or beat policing. Metal detectors have been the most common technology embraced; facial recognition is another increasingly adopted in the last five years. More notably National Guard soldiers or federal police units are deployed en masse to secure stations and trains indefinitely, exceeding conventional expectations of appropriate police presence for a given train station.
This phenomenon, which dates as far back as 2007, is found mostly in developing countries of Asia, Latin America and Eastern Europe. But this is not a story of haves and have-nots. If anything, one may wonder whether this growing phenomenon is ripe for cross-pollination in the much older and more developed Metro systems in western Europe, North America (Canada and the United States) and East Asia (Korea, Taiwan and Japan) in the future.
Metros in the latter group are generally designed and operated as civilian spaces — with civil police as protection — and its users are given maximal freedom of mobility within defined spaces. But concerns over terrorism, crime and societal unrest over the last 20 years — and accelerated by the COVID-19 pandemic — have eroded confidence in many of these cities. Calls for more security in public spaces are growing in several cities, especially in North America and, to a lesser extent, Western Europe. In the United States, in particular, faith in maintenance of public spaces is at a post-pandemic nadir. Can this heavy-handed, militarized approach from abroad be the model for future emulation?
Policing in public transit can be a politically and emotionally charged topic for readers in my native United States. To clarify, this post will exclusively focus on the extra layer of security apparatus — coming directly from the federal or military branch — finding a home in Metro systems. These extra security personnel, in extreme cases, have not been shy about showing extralegal violence in stations and trains, damaging equipment and injuring protesters in front of recording smartphones and cameras. In several countries, these personnel have drawn much ire among its ridership and general populace, seen as a foreign occupying force on civilian grounds.
From Hong Kong of 2019 to Minneapolis of 2020 to Paris of spring 2023, to name a recent few, cities increasingly have been hotbeds for large-scale confrontations between the state and its citizens. But now, for the first time, public transit may be in the crosshairs as spaces of conflict during societal turmoil. Usual media coverage and discussions of public transit can be myopic to individual cities or regions. This author attempts to paint as global a picture as possible, and the macro-level canvas illustrates an alarming trend. Is the militarizing Metro the future for public transit in the 21st century?
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Author’s Note: A definition of how I use the term “Metro” may be needed to continue. “Metros” refer to rapid transit systems which connect inside a metropolitan area with its own right-of-way and electricity-powered trains. From Budapest, the oldest Metro in operation, to Dhaka, which opened last year, Metros transport large groups of people with relatively frequent service and serve as the central mode for any regional public transport. To save space and elucidate the concept clearly, I have opted for this broad general term for “Metro”.
Another Author’s Note: I work at a public transit agency in the United States and want to state this post does not express the opinions of my employer.
Protesters and riot police face each other in a Metro station concourse hallway in Santiago, Chile, in 2019. (Source: BBC)
A New Layer of Security
Railroads have been battlegrounds for many civilian-military clashes, particularly in the historic struggle for labor rights. But Metros have largely avoided these clashes within the constructed spaces. Some hypotheses are: much of the Metros opened, expanded or became critical to urban life in the post-war prosperity and a mass urbanizing migration between 1945 and 1990 (the Soviet Bloc provide an interesting counterpoint); the generally underground station typologies at city centers which aren’t conducive for large-scale confrontations; or growing white-collar riderships estranged from militant industrial unionism. Whichever the case, mass violent confrontations taking place inside Metro stations in the 20th century have not occurred (or at least its records were not available during research for this writing)
Military presence inside Metros were first recorded in the 1990s to provide auxiliary help to police and allay public panic with visible patrols after a terrorist attack. Incidents include the 1995 Tokyo subway sarin attack; 1996 Paris RER bombing; the 2004 Madrid train bombings; 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; 2015 Paris terrorist attacks; 2017 New York City Subway bombing; 2017 London Overground bombing; and 2021 January 6 storming of the United States Congress in Washington D.C.3 45678The military presence would usually last for a few weeks until authorities determined the threat had passed and the public had returned to relative sense of security.
Military presence solely as a calming force inside Metros remains a common strategy. But in 2019, two simultaneous instances of social unrest saw them used as tools of state repression in Metro stations in Hong Kong and Santiago, Chile. In Hong Kong, demonstrators and bystanders were video-recorded being attacked and beaten with batons by riot police in military gear and plainclothes officers in two separate attacks at Prince Edward Station and Yuen Long Station, respectively.910 Hardline protesters destroyed station equipment and burned station entrances in retaliation to police brutality. As collateral to Hong Kong's democracy protests in 2019 and 2020, Hong Kong's world-class Metro system, MTR, suspended all rail service for the first time in its 40-plus-year history citing need for repairs.11 Critics cited the suspension as tantamount to a city-wide curfew from Beijing considering Hong Kong’s density and over-reliance of its citizenry on MTR trains.12
Similar scenes unfolded in Santiago, Chile the same year. Protesters clashed with riot police over a proposed fare increase that led to a widespread fare evasion campaign, which then erupted nationwide into a violent outpouring against the government’s longstanding neoliberal policies. Eighty Santiago Metro stations were damaged by vandalism and fires, and Santiago Metro suspended service for several days.13 Police fired tear gas and beat protesters with batons in station concourses.14 For some Chileans and observers, Santiago Metro becoming ground zero for the protests was appropriate. Santiago Metro has served as "a microcosm of Chilean society" and a symbol for the country's infamous neoliberal projects which have squeezed the working class of the capital city through privatization and cost-cutting measures.15
In 2023, a new military presence under a new pretense is underway at another Latin American Metro system. In January, the Mexican Government deployed more than 6,000 national guard soldiers to Mexico City Metro to stand patrol after three train collisions within a week’s span were deemed “atypical actions," according to Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum. The National Guard presence is ostensibly for a few months but may remain permanent pending evaluations, said Sheinbaum.16
Critics have pinned the National Guard deployment as a political ploy for Sheinbaum, the current frontrunner for Mexico’s next president. On January 18, student organizers gathered at Centro Médico Metro station to protest. They listed a series of demands: for the withdrawal of the National Guard, for the Metro director to be fired and for the Metro budget to be hiked by 50 percent to allow comprehensive maintenance work on its crumbling infrastructure.17 Critics have pointed that the maintenance budget for Mexico City Metro has declined by 40% between 2018 and 2021.18 Critics have agreed the National Guard will not resolve Metro's continuous accidents in the past two years. "If accidents continue, like a cable or the signal system breaks, the National Guard is not going to detect that or make a difference," said Stanford professor Eduardo Miranda.19
Unlike Santiago, Hong Kong and Mexico City where the military or National Guard are only occasionally called upon in a crisis, another country has long implemented permanent military security for its Metro. Delhi Metro, the largest of the Metro systems in India, are secured not by local or transit police but by the Central Industrial Security Force (CISF), a federal paramilitary force responsible for protecting the nation’s most important industrial, infrastructural and cultural assets. Often wearing camouflage uniforms and marching in military parades, the CISF are tasked with securing atomic plants, airports and the Taj Mahal with a 170,000+ personnel force.20 The only other equivalent to Delhi Metro's relationship with paramilitary security presence is Kolkata Metro, which is operated by Indian Railways and thus falls under the security protection of Indian Railway's internal Railway Protection Force.21
From its opening in 2002 until 2007, Delhi Metro was policed locally until the Indian Government turned its security over to CISF. In 2019, CISF Unit Delhi Metro Rail Corporation received 5,000 extra CISF personnel, expanding its security-deployed corps to more than 12,000, making it the largest single unit within CISF.22 As an imperfect comparison to illustrate the volume of Delhi Metro's security personnel, New York City Subway in October 2022 were patrolled by 3,500 police officers with an additional 1,200 overtime shifts in what was declared the largest deployment in its history — despite New York City having nearly twice more stations than Delhi.23
The CISF Unit DMRC is a security apparatus unlike any other Metro outside India. The unit has several "Quick Reaction Teams" for high-priority crime response as well as a Dog Squad and a Bomb Detection Squad for explosives. The unit mans hundreds of metal detectors outside nearly all Delhi Metro stations (more on it later). Despite a sprawling presence, the unit faced scrutiny in 2018 as the rapidly expanding Delhi Metro system was noted a “hotspot of crime," mainly due to pickpocketing from women passengers. Despite platform screen doors, more than 40 suicide attempts by jumping in front of a train were attempted at Delhi Metro in 2018.24
A queue to the metal detector at a Delhi Metro station, with CISF personnel performing security checks. (Source: India Today)
The Airport-ization of the Metro
Like Delhi Metro, most if not all Metro systems in India have metal detectors. In fact, during 2020 at the height of India’s first COVID-19 wave. Delhi Metro re-opened with multiple metal detectors laid one after the other for all riders would enter through so CISF can “contactlessly frisk” for anyone with symptoms.25
Before the pandemic, long queues to enter Delhi Metro stations were the norm, with some lines stretching half a kilometer and the wait taking up to 20 minutes, acording to the Times of India.26 In response to one passenger on Twitter who complained he had been waiting up to 40 minutes to enter Akshardham Station, the official Delhi Metro Twitter account responded that despite the incredibly long wait, they "expect cooperation by passengers in following the security procedures."
Metal detectors are a common security feature found across Asia. One of the newest Metros, Dhaka Metro in the capital city of Bangladesh, India’s eastern neighbor, have riders clamoring for metal detectors at their stations. Opened in December 2022, Dhaka Metro told the Dhaka Tribune that metal detectors will be installed at a later date.27 The same article quoted riders, some of them who queue before the system opens for service to board the first morning train, complaining about the “lax security” provided, including no metal detectors.
Metal detectors remain a keystone feature of Metro systems in southeast Asia. Singapore’s famous MRT system had adopted metal detectors in 2021, but on a rotating basis between stations and not ubiquitously.28 Bangkok MRT in Thailand has had metal detectors in its stations for nearly a decade. Unlike riders in Dhaka, Thais have developed a sense of humor about the inconsistent security at Bangkok MRT, including those who man metal detectors and check inside bags. A 2015 satirical video traces the “origin story” of MRT security to a whip-smart Thai grandma and explains “how the fuck they are able to check bags so fast.”
Beyond the satire, Bangkok in 2015 experienced three bombing attacks which rattled the capital city. Even in a state of heightened awareness among its residents, some voiced frustration at the “security theater” of Bangkok MRT’s metal detectors. (Interestingly, Bangkok’s other rail system, BTS SkyTrain, does not have metal detectors) “I encounter this nonsense all the time. Even the metal detector devices appear to be unreliable…such lax inspections are a waste of time on both sides. They lead to nothing but irritation and frustration,” wrote journalist Ploenpote Atthako in the Bangkok Post in August 20, 2015, three days after the Erewan Shrine bombing which killed 20 people.29
No one country has adopted and expanded its metal detector presence at Metro stations like China. In a country where full-fledged Metro systems have mushroomed within two decades, China wields tremendous social control over its Metro riders. All Metro systems in China (except Hong Kong MTR) have metal detectors at its stations, including those in Beijing and Shanghai, whose respective riderships both double that of New York City Subway and triple that of the London Underground. Beijing Subway in 2018, for example, had 882 subway checkpoints in total and 30,000 security guards. Beijing’s municipal government about 1.7 billion Yuan ($247 million USD) a year to keep the security checkpoints operational and staffed, according to the South China Morning Post in 2020.30
Beijing was arguably the first city to adopt full-time metal detectors for its Metro system in 2008, in the lead-up to hosting the Olympics. The metal detectors stayed after 2008, and whatever remaining political will to remove them disappeared with the 2014 Kunming attack, when an eight-person gang with knives killed 31 people and injured 143 at the Kunming Railway Station. In 2016, metal detectors were codified as part of solutions listed in its counterterrorism laws passed by the Communist Party.31 These security checkpoints were inspired from the aviation industry and how airports check riders before entering its premises, most notably the United States' post-9/11 TSA presence at airports, according to a 2020 journal from the Beijing University of Technology.32
Despite a wide prevalence around the world, Western countries in North America and Europe have never adopted metal detectors for their Metro systems full-time. In Europe, metal detectors have historically been temporary uses for major intercity rail stations after a terrorist attack. One interesting and recent deviation was London in 2018, when metal detectors were in part-time use at Vauxhall Station to combat a series of violent crimes in London, including stabbing deaths outside a Tube station.33
In the United States, new detection technologies have been toyed with at certain Metro systems. As aforementioned, New York City under Mayor Adams flirted with a new untested technology. In 2018, Los Angeles Metro, with federal Transportation Security Administration staff, tested "passive" body scanners at its downtown hub station to detect weapons or explosives. A law professor questioned the legality of the passive body scanners at a transit stop, arguing that what is deemed as a “mass” on an individual is not enough for probable cause to conduct a search. He also gave credit to LA Metro for seeking technology to minimize racial profiling.34
For proponents of metal detector screenings, the legalities discussed in Los Angeles are superfluous. “It is only natural that terrorists would want to shift their sights to trains and subways where they could inflict mass casualties and cause fear and havoc,” said Gal Luft, co-director of the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security to SCMP. “The cost of security screening to society in terms of time and loss of privacy is justified. A minor inconvenience which could prevent a catastrophe is not a lot to ask.”35
A Smoothening, or An Extinction of Privacy?
Despite claims by security analysts, metal detectors and security checkpoints are no minor inconvenience for the everyday rider. Rider frustration from Beijing to Delhi is palpable, from media interviews to customer complaints on Twitter. But what if there was a new technology to keep the supposed security of metal detectors but minus the inconvenience? Facial recognition technologies claim to be that perfect synthesis. Riders can seamlessly pay their fares using their face, and Metros can account for who exactly is riding the system at any time and provide another layer of surveillance in addition to CCTVs.
In China, facial recognition scanners were already in operation before the COVID-19 pandemic (it only has become more ubiquitous since). As of 2019, scanners were installed at fare gates. Users' fares would be automatically deducted from their registered account. Metros in Shenzhen, Guangzhou, and Jinan installed the scanners full-time; others, like Shanghai Metro, were experimenting.36 The Chinese government has reduced or eliminated as many hurdles as possible to allow widespread adoption of this technology. "Money would not be a big problem and there would be little legal and limited social hurdles in doing so," a facial recognition researcher told SCMP.37
India under current Prime Minister Narendra Modi expressed interest in China’s facial recognition advancements; now, this interest is being realized at its Metro systems as well. MG Road Station in Delhi Metro installed eight scanners at its entrances and exits in June 2022.38 In Bangalore in southern India, the Bengaluru Metro discussed a monthly pass system using facial recognition technology. But unlike its peers in Delhi, the discussion seems to have stalled under India's constitutional quandaries on privacy.39
Facial recognition technologies have received interest in countries not yet discussed in this post, such as Japan, Russia and Brazil. While these countries may not have adopted the first two security measures, they remain enticed by the futuristic promise of facial recognition to further provide a seamless transit experience. In Japan, Osaka Metro tested facial recognition scanners in 2019, and JR West, part of the national Japanese Rail corporation which also serves Osaka, deployed face biometrics gates at two train stations in Osaka in March 2023. Osaka Metro aims to introduce to all stations before Osaka's World Expo in 2025.4041
Moscow Metro in Russia arguably has had the biggest adoption of facial recognition technology of any Metro system in the world. The famous system, built ornately under Stalin, rolled out “Face Pay” to 240 stations in October 2021, claiming
"the largest use of facial recognition technology in the world.”42 Metro riders will upload a photo and connect their bank and metro cards to the Mosmetro mobile app for Face Pay to work and pay for fares. Authorities say the data will be securely encrypted.43
São Paulo, Brazil has emerged as a fascinating laboratory in the legal challenges involving facial recognition used for mass public transit. In 2022, São Paulo Metro — one of the largest Metro systems in South America — decided to adopt the technology using new biometric cameras featuring SecurOS FaceX. In March, a judge for the São Paulo State Court ruled in agreement with a civil lawsuit brought forth by numerous civil rights organizations calling the technology a threat which “undermined people’s fundamental rights”.44 The judge, Cynthia Thome, noted Sao Paulo Metro had not provided in detail what they plan to process and use the facial recognition data and said several technical issues went unanswered.45
However, after appeal from SecureOS FaceX, the decision was overturned, and facial recognition technology returned to São Paulo Metro in November 2022. The cameras are on Line 3, but plans to expand to Lines 1 and 2 within 18 months of Line 3's deployment, according to São Paulo State governor Rodrigo Garcia.46
In contrast to metal detectors, facial recognition entices a smoothening out of security checkpoints, which via personnel or equipment, often comes into abrasive contact with civilians who simply want to ride the train. Like mass transit at its Platonic ideal, facial recognition promises an invisible experience, one free of delays, queues and checks. But its implications and unanswered questions with the technology extend far further into dystopian spaces than the analog and clunky metal detector. One burning question is consistently raised: where will these biometric data be stored? The answer has been often unanswered or left ominous; Moscow Metro’s FacePay, for example, will only be accessible by federal interior ministry staff but the details are unclear. As surfaced by the Brazilian judge Thome, how governments plan to use the data beyond the Metro have been met with near-universal silence from governments eager to adopt facial recognition.47
“We need to have full transparency on how this application will work in practice,” said Stanislav Shakirov, a Russian digital rights and freedom of information activist, of FacePay in 2021. “We are moving closer to authoritarian countries like China that have mastered facial technology. The Moscow Metro is a government institution and all the data can end up in the hands of the security services.”48
The following year, Moscow preemptively detained more than 140 anti-war protesters using facial recognition cameras across its city, including 29 who were stopped by police at its Metro stations.49 An architect in her 30s who was arrested twice for protesting was stopped twice more inside Moscow Metro by police who knew her whereabouts in the Metro through Face Pay scanners. “They knew what carriage I was in because they waited right outside it,” she said, according to Reuters .50 The same technology on Moscow Metro has been used to detain draft dodgers and re-enlist them.51
In the legal battle in São Paulo, human rights organizations argued in court that facial recognition left non-white, non-binary and gender-transitioning people especially vulnerable. “Frequently these technologies hit non-binary and transitioning people, for example, because they do not recognize the changes in them,” stated Article 19, an international human rights organization, which brought the lawsuit against São Paulo Metro. “People have been prohibited from using a ticket they had bought because the technology failed to identify them as the person who initially made the purchase. There are also ‘false positives’, where black people are more likely to be affected.”52
International civil and human rights institutions have been on full alert about the dizzying growth of facial recognition technologies in recent years. In 2018, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) urged the United States Congress to pass a moratorium on government use of facial recognition.53 Three years later, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights called for a moratorium on artificial intelligence, including facial recognition, until global safeguards are in place. Since the UN plea, however, Delhi, Osaka, Moscow and São Paulo have adopted facial recognition for fare payments in its public transit system.
Mexico’s federal auxiliary authorities head down the stairs to La Raza station in Mexico City. (Source: Rogelio Morales Ponce/Cuartoscuro)
What Does the Future Hold?
Whether through the National Guard or paramilitaries, metal detector scanners, or through facial recognition technologies, dozens of cities around the world have opted into additive layers of force and control of its ridership. There is no overarching congress of cities or states conspiring toward this goal, but various nation-states have arrived at similar conclusions to buff their security details in order to combat some real or imagined domestic threat. For some cities, the concept of the Metro as a peaceful civilian space has been stripped; for a rapidly growing number with new Metros, such concepts never existed. The general zeitgeist of global unease and a backsliding of democratic norms as nations scramble to figure out their own 21st century destinies have trickled down to public transit.
While often sharing in that zeitgeist, developed nations in western Europe and North America have not opted into any of the three measures for its Metros. Even in the United States, where post-pandemic urban doomerism seems most shrill, American cities are not at risk and rather well-protected. The 2018 Carpenter v. the United States decision by the Supreme Court has proven foundational in states and cities — like San Francisco, Portland and Chicago — to pass laws which ban or severely curtail facial recognition in public spaces.54 Laws in the United States like the 10th Amendment and Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 limit the extent the military or National Guard can be converted to occupying forces in its own cities (although several Presidents, from George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, have deployed the National Guard during major urban riots using the Insurrection Act of 1807)55 Despite Adams' flirtations with metal detectors for subway stations in New York City, public outcry has made the idea unpalatable for now.
Laws and public opinion seem to be buffers — but will enforcement and adherence to existing laws and norms follow in 21st century America? Public trust in the United States toward government and democracy has been sliding to decades-low figures, adding uncertainty over whether longstanding democratic norms will have the strength to buttress the political degradation.56 In post-COVID America, states and cities are already blinking in the face of crime and societal ills magnified by the pandemic; the state of Virginia and the city of New Orleans both rolled back its police ban of facial recognition technologies in 2022, citing the need to bolster police with new technologies to combat rising homicides and crime.57
Crime and homelessness are the biggest pain point inflicting physical and reputational damage on the American city. Without an exception, public transit — if readily available — has been the lens through which the media, social media and anti-urban political operatives comb through for incidents of violence and human misery. Denizens of any major American city may feel it is their city alone has fallen solely and irreparably to crime, or their Metro uniquely has become unsafe beyond relief, but even a slight zoom out shows the same coverage and discussions in every other city. It is a unique pathology of American cities where the discourse of their supposed demise is both universal but siloed; the supposed proof in photos or videos going wildly viral but trapped in echo chambers; the plight real and serious but witnessed en masse digitally and ethereally; and the governmental solutions concerted and costly but thus far largely ineffective.
Metro agencies have ramped up policing solutions to get a handle on this national crisis. Some have resorted to unconventional tactics, like playing classical music very loud inside stations to keep homeless loiterers away, out of seeming desperation.58 As cities and Metros flounder, the National Guard seem an enticing silver bullet for local politicians; mayors or councilmembers in New Orleans, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Oakland spoke for or against National Guard deployment to their cities to fight crime in the past year.5960 6162 In national politics, former President Donald Trump -- and likely Republican nominee for the 2024 elections -- has called for the mass deployment of the National Guard across cities “until law and order is restored” in March as response to crime and homelessness in urban areas.63
Will we see metal detectors on New York City subway stations, or the National Guard on the “L” in Chicago, or facial recognition scanners on BART in San Francisco? It still remains highly unlikely. But the answer stands on shaky grounds. What is more solid is that the reader may no longer plead ignorance should this overbearing future arrive at our train stations. The militarizing Metro is ripe for picking.
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