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Train Robberies in Los Angeles lead to thousands of missing packages

LOS ANGELES, Calif., February 12, 2022 – Thousands of undelivered packages littered the Union Pacific railroad tracks in East Los Angeles last month, the result of a barrage of train robberies that struck the area with many of the trains bound for Washington. 

Since December 2020, railroad company Union Pacific has seen a 160 percent increase in criminal rail theft in the Los Angeles area with an even larger spike leading into the holiday season when many shoppers took to online platforms. 

Union Pacific told the Los Angeles Times that most of the bandits target rail yards where cargo is transferred from trucks to trains, which includes the yard in Lincoln Heights that occupies about 150 acres east of downtown Los Angeles. Most of the train traffic in this area is connected to the port of Los Angeles where about 40% of the country’s maritime imports enter the U.S., creating a key link to the supply chain for national retailers and distributors. 

John Schrieber, a Los Angeles-based photojournalist, visited the site in Lincoln Heights and posted a video to his Twitter of looted packages from Amazon, FedEx, and UPS boxes to undelivered at-home COVID-19 tests. The tracks, littered as far as the eye can see, were described by Gov. Gavin Newson, to later criticism, as “like a third world country.” 

Union Pacific Corp. sent a letter to LA officials in December stating the city was not doing enough to police the area and prosecute trespassers, the Wall Street Journal reported, sparking a “blame game” of whose responsibility it is to police the area since many train companies rely on private policing for security. 

In the letter, Adrian Guerrero, the general director of public affairs at Union Pacific, said the criminal justice system is to blame due to its “lenient prosecution” as many people arrested for railcar burglary have their sentences reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense. 

Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón replied in a letter saying the number of cases reported in which Union Pacific was the victim had decreased from 78 cases in 2019 to 47 in 2021, in which 55% were prosecuted. The remaining cases were dismissed for either lack of evidence or lack of allegations involving burglary, theft, or tampering. 

Between February and December of last year, more than 122 arrests were made along Union Pacific tracks, according to LAPD data.

With the LAPD about 2,000 officers short due to resignations and COVID-19, Los Angeles Police Captain German Hurtado, who works in the area, said Union Pacific’s downsizing has left just six officers patrolling between Yuma, Arizona, and the Pacific Coast.

“It is like digging sand at the beach. We set up a task force. We are making an arrest and then we see a quarter of a mile down the track someone else taking merchandise,” Hurtado said. 

Although Union Pacific is looking to expand its private police force and has added drones, specialized fencing, and trespass detection to respond to the rising theft numbers, a spokeswoman for the company said their private police force simply “do not supplant the vital need and authority of local law enforcement.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom has focused his proposed budget on granting $255 million to local law enforcement over three years, creating a unit that would focus on retail, auto, and train robberies to combat this issue. 

The 160-year-old Union Pacific Corp has had its fair share of train robberies over the years, including the largest train robbery in history when six outlaws, led by Sam Bass, robbed a Union Pacific train near Big Springs, Nebraska in 1877. The outlaws reportedly stole $60,000 in $20 gold pieces on their way to San Francisco. 

Running on almost 140,000 route miles, the U.S. freight rail network is widely considered the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, accounting for about 28% of all U.S. freight movement by ton-miles. 

Los Angeles’s insurgence of train robberies has led many to wonder why the area is now seeing such an increase in one of the oldest crimes in the U.S. 

Keith Lewis, vice president of operations for CargoNet, a company that tracks cargo thefts, told the Los Angeles Times that Southern California is a hub at risk for train robberies with train cars filled with valuable goods traversing hundreds of miles of tracks at all hours. The supply chain congestion often leads to trains sitting idle leaving them vulnerable to thieves. 

Country-wide, more than 1.7 million are stolen or go missing every day, the New York Times reported, adding up to more than $25 million in lost goods and services.

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