OTTAWA - Via Rail says it is contemplating whether to ask all of its travellers for identification as it considers ways to buttress security in the wake of an alleged terrorist plot to derail one of its passenger trains.
It is not current routine practice for rail staff to ask passengers to show ID, Marc Beaulieu, Via's regional general manager for eastern Canada, told the House of Commons public safety committee.
"We only check ID when necessary," Beaulieu said Thursday. "In other words, (we check) if we have a doubt as to the transaction that is going on. We do not, as a rule, ask all of our customers for ID."
But when asked by NDP public safety critic Randall Garrison if the identification check policy had been evaluated as part of Via Rail threat assessments, Beaulieu said it is one of the measures "being assessed."
The public safety committee is studying the security of rail transport following the arrests last month of Raed Jaser, 35, of Toronto, and Chiheb Esseghaier, 30, of Montreal. They face criminal charges in what the RCMP says was a terrorist plot guided by al-Qaida in Iran.
U.S. authorities said Thursday they had arrested a man in connection with the alleged scheme who recently crossed into the country from Canada.
In addition to Via Rail representatives, MPs quizzed members of the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, RCMP, Transport Canada and Public Safety.
Beaulieu said Via Rail had responded to at least eight to 10 security- or safety-related incidents this year. Those incidents ranged from protest blockades to collisions with vehicles, Via spokesman Jacques Gagnon later said.
Gagnon did not immediately have statistics on the number of suspicious packages or other such incidents at rail facilities in recent months.
He would not elaborate on the possibility of asking passengers for identification.
"We are constantly upgrading our services," Gagnon said. "So in the context of what has happened recently, we are looking at this. But I cannot speculate as to what (we) will do."
Beaulieu said all passenger tickets are scanned upon boarding, so Via Rail does have a manifest of the names on tickets.
Liberal public safety critic Francis Scarpaleggia suggested Via Rail and the government consider vetting passengers against police lists to screen out threats. "It may not be a terrorist, it could be somebody who's known to have a firearm and threatened someone in the past," Scarpaleggia said.
Garrison wondered whether Via Rail had access to a list of lost and stolen passports, information that might help front-line security personnel, but Beaulieu suggested Via Rail had no access to such a list.
Access to passport data may depend on rules related to information-sharing, said John Davies, director general of national security policy at the Department of Public Safety.
Beaulieu told the committee that Via Rail scrutinizes passenger behaviour for signs someone might pose a threat, such as nervousness or a one-way ticket booking. "All purchases paid with cash raise a red flag."
He also said Via Rail has plainclothes train marshals aboard passenger cars — much like the flight marshals on select airplane routes who can intervene in security incidents. But Beaulieu declined to say what percentage of trains have marshals.
"To reveal more information about some of our measures would defeat the measures that are in place, so I'm going to choose not to answer that."
Conservative MP Dean Del Mastro expressed concern about ready access to rail tracks in urban areas, pointing to a 2010 Montreal incident in which three teenagers with spray paint were hit by a train.
"If you can get down there with a spray paint can, you could get down there with just about anything else," Del Mastro said.
Transport Canada expects railway organizations to make appropriate threat assessments and develop measures to prevent problems, said Gerard McDonald, the department's assistant deputy minister for safety and security.
"We're working with the railways, both on the safety and security side, to help them identify those areas."
Beaulieu said Via Rail has been comparing notes with counterparts in other countries.
"We constantly review safety and security measures by other railways, whether it be Amtrak or Europe or Australia, to see what their best practices are," he said. "Based on our risk assessments, we determine what actions we should take."