Kellogg World Alumni Magazine, Summer 2003Kellogg School of Management
In DepthIn BriefDepartmentsClass NotesClub NewsArchivesContactKellogg Homepage
The soul of entrepreneurship
Portrait of an entrepreneur
Class acts
Faculty forum
High stakes on the home front
Inspired to lead
Traffic nightmare
Theory & Practice: Brian Sternthal
Theory & Practice: Jim Oates
Address Update
Alumni Home
Submit News
Internal Site
Northwestern University
Kellogg Search
Traffic Nightmare

By Rebecca Lindell

How the politics of terror impacts ground transportation, supply chains and the bottom line

Kellogg School Professor Robert Gallamore doesn't like to talk about it. He doesn't even like to think about it.

But envisioning the next major terrorist attack on America's infrastructure is on his agenda.

Will it be a dirty bomb, packed into a container headed into the nation's heartland? A biological weapon routed through a metropolitan transit system?

The mind recoils at the possibilities. Yet it has become Gallamore's responsibility not only to imagine a montage of potential disasters but to recommend how to prevent them.

Gallamore, director of Northwestern's Transportation Center and a professor of managerial economics and decision sciences, is lending his expertise to the federal government as it seeks to avert future terrorist attacks. As a member of the transportation panel of the U.S. Committee on Science and Technology for Countering Terrorism, he and 15 other transportation experts are helping to set the federal research agenda and advise officials on the best use of their resources.

"It is a war out there, but it's a different kind of war than we've ever had before, " says Gallamore, whose committee includes top thinkers from academia, business and government.

"Terrorists know how to find the vulnerability. We're kind of the counter-brainstormers. We don't know where they think is the best place to hit us next, but we have to do our best to anticipate it.

"The fear is that, as on 9/11, some breech of security could be used to convert our transportation network into a terrorist weapon."

Much effort already has gone into making the airways — the vectors of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — safer. The U.S. government has deployed air marshals on airliners, installed improved weapon detection systems at commercial airports and placed airport security screeners under the purview of federal authorities.

Those steps could be taken swiftly because aviation is a relatively closed system, with distinct points of entry and exit for passengers, freight and would-be terrorists. The picture is quite different for the rest of the U.S. transportation infrastructure — the highways, railroads, pipelines and waterways that are the lifeblood of American commerce.

The U.S. highway system consists of 4 million interconnected miles of roads. Freight rail networks extend for more than 300,000 miles, while commuter and urban rail systems cover some 10,000 miles.

Unlike the aviation industry, which reports mainly to the Federal Aviation Administration, surface transport is overseen by a loose web of local, state, public, private and federal authorities.

It is a web all too easily evaded. As Gallamore notes, "Anyone can go onto a highway and drive. There aren't gates and guards and guns to stop them, as there are with airlines."

And there likely never will be, notes Professor Joseph Schofer of Northwestern's McCormick School of Engineering. The nature of the U.S. transportation system is to be open, "and in that respect we're at serious risk," he says. A terrorist seeking to create mayhem would find many places to do so, from commuter stations to major ports.

Moreover, many supply chains are now tightly organized around a central location, making such hubs attractive targets to potential terrorists, says Kellogg Professor Sunil Chopra, the IBM Distinguished Professor of Operations Management and Information Systems. "All you have to do is disrupt one port to disrupt entire supply-chain flows," Chopra notes.

The same holds true for public transportation, notes Schofer, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and a Transportation Center faculty member. "You always know where to find the gathering places, and you always know when there are going to be a lot of people there," Schofer says.

"Is there a way you can prevent a terrorist from taking advantage of that? Probably not," he says. "But there are ways to mitigate the effects of an attack, and that's what many people are working on."

Schofer is encouraged by the ability of U.S. planners to learn from past events. He notes that the World Trade Center disaster could have claimed many more lives in 2001 had officials not absorbed lessons from a far less deadly 1993 bomb blast underneath the twin towers.

Almost immediately after the two hijacked planes hit the center, New York transit authorities sent empty subway trains to the vicinity of Ground Zero to evacuate thousands fleeing the buildings. That alone almost certainly spared many from death or injury, Schofer notes.

"They didn't do that in 1993," he says. "They became a lot smarter about responding, even though the procedural changes didn't protect against an attack."

Likewise, transportation officials across the country are becoming serious about installing safeguards like video surveillance units in mass transit systems, Schofer says. Local transit services are establishing agreements with communities to provide vehicles for evacuation purposes if necessary.

Natural disasters can provide additional information to planners on how to handle the disruptions caused by a terrorist attack, he adds. Officials in hurricane-prone areas, for example, will reverse traffic flows away from vulnerable areas when a storm is brewing.

The key to maximizing the strengths — and overcoming the weaknesses — of the U.S. transportation system may well lie in a "layered" approach to security, as advocated by Gallamore and his committee colleagues.

A layered system includes multiple security features, each of which provides backup for the others. Such a system could help to counter the threat that someone might try to smuggle a weapon of mass destruction in one of the millions of intermodal cargo shipping containers that enter the country each year.

These sealed containers are easily transferred from ships to trains to trucks, and carry more than 80 percent of the cargo ferried by ocean liners in international trade. "It's well known, unfortunately, that we don't inspect all those containers when they're imported," Gallamore says. In fact, only about 2 percent are opened and searched by U.S. Customs officials, though the government is working to increase that number.

To boost security, Gallamore and his colleagues argue that safety measures be incorporated into each container's journey from beginning to end.

For example, the government could require containers be loaded in facilities secured from unauthorized entry and monitored by surveillance cameras. Container identification scans taken at the original loading facility could be compared with scans made at multiple points on the shipment's journey to ensure that there is no unexplained deviation from its planned route.

In the future, after costs of deployment decrease and the investment is shown to be warranted, each container could be secured with a "smart seal" that would report electronically if the container is breeched. Shippers could also place light or temperature sensors within the containers to notify inspectors if a container is opened without authorization.

The drivers of vehicles delivering these containers could be subject to biometric identification and monitoring to determine unusual work patterns.

"Keeping an eye on a big outdoor network is hard to do, and we need to get better at it," Gallamore says. "We must improve our ability to know what's in the box, and to keep an eye on that box. If it falls out of its parameters during the course of that movement, authorities need to know about it."

Of course, such measures are likely to prove time-consuming and expensive, and not just for the government. "How much financial responsibility will commercial shippers and carriers be prepared to take?" Gallamore asks. "That's where it gets sticky, because most transportation businesses have huge capital requirements and thin operating margins."

Like it or not, however, many in the shipping industry are already shouldering additional costs associated with the fallout of Sept. 11.

Beginning this summer, drivers of trucks carrying hazardous materials must undergo a government background check, a move likely to reduce the pool of potential workers. Meanwhile, the government's stepped-up scrutiny of intermodal containers has slowed the flow of shipments for many in the freight industry.

In addition, many shipping customers have become leery about storing cargo at carrier facilities, notes Andrew Boyle '00, executive vice president and CFO of Boyle Transportation of Billerica, Mass.

"Shippers want more of their freight to go directly to their destination, but they're generally unwilling to pay a premium for this 'expedited' service," Boyle says. This has restricted the ability of Boyle's company to consolidate shipments and route them in the lowest cost manner.

Boyle says his firm has been somewhat insulated from the upheaval in the industry because of the nature of his business: the transport of hazardous materials and sensitive electronics. "Given the fact that the federal government is our biggest customer, we have been operating under extreme scrutiny for 32 years," Boyle says.

For Boyle Transportation, that means comprehensive background checks on each driver and GPS monitoring of all shipments. Until recently, the company paid for hourly satellite positioning updates on its trucks; in the wake of Sept. 11, it has increased the update frequency to every 15 minutes.

Each satellite tracking unit in each truck also contains a hardwired "panic button," enabling drivers to receive emergency help from the firm's operations center. Beginning this summer, each driver also will be issued a wireless panic button.

"We actually support increased oversight regarding safety and security, because it makes for a level playing field among competitors," says Boyle.

Leveling that field is one of the top goals of Gallamore and his colleagues, who have submitted their report to sponsoring federal agencies. Gallamore has since chaired a follow-up study to investigate cyber-terrorist threats to the transportation infrastructure and recommend steps for building a research program within the Department of Homeland Security to address cyber-vulnerabilities and counter-measures.

The studies make clear that the nation's counter-terrorism efforts hinge on research into all aspects of security. Gallamore suggests that the key to pursuing this research agenda will be a willingness to reward creative thinking.

"We must think about better ways to motivate research on better means of detecting explosives," Gallamore says.

"If the ideas proposed by researchers don't work, they don't work," he adds. "But if they do work but happen to be expensive, then we can always work on creating cost efficiencies."

©2002 Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University