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France Introduces Armed Undercover Marshals — On Trains, not Planes

The introduction of plainclothes security guards is just one of the measures to increase rail security after recent terror attacks in Europe.

by Pierre Longeray
Apr 4 2016, 4:25pm

A French TGV high-speed train at the Perpignan train station, via Wikimedia Commons.

The head of French railway operator SNCF announced Sunday that the state-owned company will introduce armed, plainclothes security teams on its trains. Until now, guards patrolling the trains wore navy-blue uniforms emblazoned with the company logo, and carried visible weapons. The change is a direct consequence of the terrorist attacks that hit France last year — including one that was foiled and involved a man intending to shoot up a train with an assault rifle.

Speaking Sunday on news talk show Le Grand Rendez-Vous, SNCF head Guillaume Pepy said that almost 2,800 armed, plainclothes guards would be deployed on French trains "thanks to the Savary Law." The law, which went into effect last week, intends to "prevent and combat antisocial behavior, security breaches and terrorist attacks on public transport."

In August 2015, passengers of a high-speed train traveling from Amsterdam to Paris were able to overcome a heavily armed man, narrowly avoiding a potentially deadly attack. The recent attack on the subway in Brussels has also reignited the debate around rail security and the ease of smuggling weapons and explosives onto trains.

"The point is you don't notice [them]," said Pepy of the new guards, adding that France's new plainclothes "patrollers" would be "authorized to shoot."

These rail "patrollers" are reminiscent of US sky marshals — armed, undercover federal officers who travel on board commercial flights. They were introduced in the 1960s by President Kennedy, who was concerned about the increase in hijackings, and the program received a major boost after the September 2001 terrorist attacks.

Today, there are nearly 3,300 sky marshals in the US, for approximately 30,000 commercial flights a day.

SNCF security guards currently carry .38 Special caliber guns and 7.65mm caliber guns — usually carried by one guard on the security team. All guards receive four months of training at the University of Security or Université de la Sûreté, a public body that trains rail security workers, including firearms training.

As well as announcing the deployment of undercover "train marshals," Pepy also unveiled a series of beefed-up security measures on trains and in train stations. "When you arrive at the station, SNCF agents will be able to search your bags," he said, adding that agents would be assisted by "30 sniffer dogs and around 20 teams of profilers."

Pepy also dispelled rumors that plans to install more security portals for Thalys trains — a high-speed rail link that connects Paris and Brussels, and also serves other major European cities — had been dropped. "We will maintain the Thalys portals, there is no discussion to remove them," said Pepy, adding that portals would be installed in nearly 15 train stations across France. The head of the SNCF said that he hoped authorities in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany would also equip their train stations with security gates.

To finance these new security measures, Pepy announced that the SNCF had increased its security budget by 50 percent. "The SNCF is changing. We will no longer take the train in the same way," he said. "Everyone should be able to take the train without having to worry."

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This article originally appeared in VICE News' French edition.