Questions Raised About Risks of Putting 200 Congressmen on One Train

It's likely not prudent to put so many senators and representatives on the same vehicle, say national security experts

Wednesday’s collision of a garbage truck with an Amtrak train carrying 200 or more Republican members of Congress to a retreat in West Virginia is raising questions about whether sufficient thought was given to security considerations.

The collision, which killed the truck driver and caused a number of minor injuries to people on the train, “should trigger a review of measures designed to protect government officials from attack and similar tragic accidents,” Sebastian Gorka, former strategist to President Donald Trump and author of the New York Times best-seller “Defeating Jihad,” told LifeZette on Thursday.

Gorka said terrorists specifically look for soft targets of opportunity with great symbolic value. A gathering of senators and representatives on an unguarded train traversing rural areas could be an inviting example of such a target.

“Terrorists look for targets of high symbolic value, and both al-Qaida and ISIS have publicly instructed their followers to attack high concentrations of unarmed civilians,” Gorka said.

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The U.S. Capitol Police and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are investigating the accident, but so far there is no indication the wreck was anything but an accident.

The exact number of Republican congressional members on board is not clear. The train trip was seen as an opportunity for GOP House members and senators to socialize en route to The Greenbrier, a resort near White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia.

Rep. Jason Lewis (R-Minn.) reportedly was checked for a possible concussion. Fortunately for Republicans, several of their congressional colleagues are medical doctors by training.

How soft a target congressional members might be is a topic on a lot of people’s minds of late, especially in light of the attempted assassination of multiple House Republican members last year during practice in Alexandria, Virginia, for the annual charity baseball game between teams representing the two parties.

On that day — June 14, 2017 — House Majority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-La.) was seriously wounded by the gunman, James Hodgkinson, a Belleville, Illinois, supporter of Sen. Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent-socialist who vied for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination. Hodgkinson was killed by Capitol Police. Scalise has returned to work in the House of Representatives, but his recuperation continues months after the shooting.

The Capitol Police are responsible for security in the Capitol itself and also for congressional office complexes, along with individual senators and representatives. There are an estimated 20,000 congressional aides working for members and committees, and thousands of visitors, tourists, journalists and lobbyists who come to the Capitol at various times.

Some security policy experts declined to discuss the issue of congressional security on the record. The Capitol Police also did not respond to multiple requests by LifeZette for comment. Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.) told Fox News on Thursday morning that he believes a security review is in order, but his spokesman declined to provide additional comment late Thursday.

“Trains can be derailed in many ways at many different places.”

But the issue isn’t likely to go away.

“With so many important politicians together in one place, it is an obvious tempting target for terrorists,” said John R. Lott, president of the Crime Prevention Research Center, a research and education organization. “Trains can be derailed in many ways at many different places.”

Lott said the potential for a major wreck could have been much worse, and he believes dividing large travel groups into smaller bunches is a good option for security.

Related: Liberal ‘Talking Head’ Is Happy About GOP Train Wreck

“Suppose someone had instead damaged the train tracks or had a heavier vehicle there,” Lott said in an email to LifeZette. “A large number of those 200 Republican senators and House members could have been seriously injured or killed.”

He added, “I understand the desire of politicians to socialize on the trip, but whatever security procedures that were in place were obviously not foolproof. Either increasing security and/or breaking those traveling into smaller groups seems like obvious options.”

PoliZette White House writer Jim Stinson can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter.

(photo credit, article image: Sebastian Gorka, CC BY-SA 3.0, by Gage Skidmore / Paul Ryan, CC BY 2.0, by Gage Skidmore)

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Political reporter, LifeZette. Indiana University journalism grad. Boston U. business grad. Former Indiana, Alabama statehouse reporter, Daytona Beach editorial writer.