Los Angeles Has a Train Robbery Problem and Its Costing Millions of Dollars

Union Pacific has seen the worst of losses, is downsizing really the root cause?
Ameya Paleja
A Union Pacific Cargo trainAblokhin/ iStock

Images of thousands of plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, and packaging lying along railway tracks in Los Angeles have dominated social media for a few days now. It is quite well known now that trains carrying e-commerce shipments are being robbed in broad daylight in the city but fixing the problem is difficult when concerned parties are engaged in a blame game, Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported

Train robberies might sound like an artifact from yesteryears when bandits rode on horsebacks to catch up with chugging trains. In its modern form in Los Angeles, it is as simple as breaking into a rail car parked or slowly moving towards an intermodal hub, a bottleneck in the huge supply chain. Los Angeles is one of the two major ports that handle 40 percent of American maritime imports, Los Angeles Times reported.  

The packages being stolen belong to multiple courier companies but are carried singularly on the railroad by Union Pacific which operates in 23 states, mostly in the western U.S. Union Pacific (UP) estimates that about 90 containers are being compromised every day, Los Angeles Times reported. 

From being a petty crime, the operation has become more organized now with people living in homeless encampments surrounding the rail tracks allegedly involved. UP pegs the losses from these thefts at $5 million in the last year. While train thefts rose 160 percent in the past year, UP claimed in a post on its website that it had risen 356 percent in October 2021 as compared to the same month, the previous year. 

Is downsizing to blame?

While the City's law enforcement agency, the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD), has been hit by resignations and COVID-19 and has seen its staff numbers attrited, the department told WSJ that UP's problems were of its own making. The railway operator has downsized its security staff to six people, Police Capt. German Hurtado told WSJ and the LAPD through its efforts had arrested over 125 people since August. 

In its January 16 post, UP has refuted this allegation and claimed that 1,600 staff monitor its 275 miles of track in Los Angeles county. It has also deployed surveillance drones, specialized fencing, and trespass detection systems to contain the crime but out of the hundreds of arrests that UP agents have made, less than half have been booked and many released within 24 hours.

The company had also written to District Attorney last year requesting stricter enforcement of laws for those apprehended but WSJ reported that the District Attorney cases were being dismissed for absence of evidence or allegation of theft or burglary. The number of cases where UP was affected had in fact been falling over the past few years and other railroad operators in the area were not affected by these "crimes."

California Governor Gavin Newsom had announced a $225 million grant over the next few years to contain retail and other thefts, WSJ reported but it would need an all-hands-on-deck strategy to solve this major hurdle. 

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