Train robberies are a problem in Los Angeles, and no one agrees on how to stop them

Michelle Wilde purchased a piece of sand art earlier this month while visiting Jerome, Arizona. Instead of carrying it home, she had the shop owner ship the $145 frame to her.

Instead of arriving at her home in Everett, Washington, the package landed next to a railroad track in East Los Angeles. The frame was gone. The box stayed.

It was among thousands of boxes recently found scattered along the Union Pacific Corp.

UNP 1,76 %

Tracks in the middle of Los Angeles. Thieves had broken into the wagons and with from Dr. Cut off items delivered to Martens,

Harbor Freight Tools and small businesses alike. The scene has sparked blame games between the railroad, local officials and the police over who is to blame and how to stop a modern twist on one of the country’s oldest crimes.

“Why are people breaking in? [railcars] and why is nobody doing anything?” said Ms. Wilde when contacted by a Wall Street Journal reporter to update her on the fate of her package. “We’re like year 13 of a pandemic, so nothing about human behavior surprises me.”

Union Pacific said it has seen a 160% increase in criminal railroad theft in Los Angeles since December 2020, including a sharper increase in the months leading up to Christmas when trailers are loaded with inventory intended for stores or gifts to take home to be delivered. Total losses for Union Pacific, with a market cap of $155 billion, were $5 million last year. This does not include losses caused by customers shipping on its rails.

Union Pacific has seen a 160% increase in criminal railroad theft in Los Angeles since December 2020.

Photo:

Mario Tama/Getty Images

Railroad robberies date back to the early days of railroads, and Union Pacific has had its share of famous robberies. In 1899, Butch Cassidy’s gang robbed Union Pacific Overland Flyer #1 as it was driving through Wyoming. The group stopped the train and blew up its safe. A group was sent to pursue the bandits.

Elsewhere in the country, thieves occasionally loot everything from alcohol to gadgets from freight trains that are either stopping or crawling through areas. The railways are fighting the problem with their own police forces. Union Pacific has more than 200 police officers, but they have to patrol thousands of miles across 23 states.

Lance Fritz, Union Pacific’s chief executive officer, said train theft is usually a small problem. What’s happening in Los Angeles is different. A few years ago, opportunistic individuals might see a more than a mile long train going through town and pry open a car to see what was inside, maybe grab a few items, he said, but “today it’s more organized “.

A Union Pacific freight train in Los Angeles where thousands of opened packages lie strewn.

Photo:

Mario Tama/Getty Images

The tracks hit connect to a Union Pacific intermodal marshalling yard where containers are transferred between trucks and trains. The rail corridor carries containers from nearby ports as well as trailers filled with packages from Amazon.com Inc.,

Fedex Corp.

und United Parcel Service Inc.,

destined for other sorting centers in the United States

That month, local news footage showing packages scattered along the tracks went viral. On Thursday, empty packages were still piled on the sidewalks near the tracks. As trains passed, railcars could be seen with their doors open.

Union Pacific, in a December letter to Los Angeles officials, complained that it was not doing enough to patrol the area and prosecute those caught trespassing.

Adrian Guerrero, director general of public affairs at Union Pacific, said lenient prosecutions mean many of those arrested for ransacking railroad cars have their charges reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense — and often quickly released. “We just don’t see the criminal justice system holding these people accountable,” Mr. Guerrero said.

In a reply letter sent to Mr. Guerrero on Friday, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said the number of cases submitted to his office listing Union Pacific as a victim has increased from 78 cases a year over the past two years 2019 was down to 47 in 2021. Prosecutors filed charges in 55% of those cases, Mr Gascón said, while the others were dismissed for lack of evidence or because they made no allegations of burglary, theft or tampering.

“It is very telling that other major railway companies in the region are not facing the same levels of theft at their facilities as UP,” Mr Gascón wrote. “My Office is not designed to secure your websites.”

Los Angeles Police Captain German Hurtado, who works at the Hollenbeck station that covers the area, said Union Pacific trimmed its police force in 2020, leaving the company with just six officers serving between Yuma, Arizona, and patrolling the Pacific coast. Resignations and Covid-19 have also left the LAPD with around 2,000 officers, he said, including 50 on his ward.

The LAPD has deployed several task forces around the tracks, he said, and has arrested about 125 people since August for railroad-related crimes, including burglary and trespassing.

Union Pacific executives said they had added dozens of agents to patrol the Los Angeles area in recent months, deploying drones, specialized fencing and trespassing detection systems to combat the theft. The railroad said it is also actively seeking more officials. “Although we have private police forces, they do not replace the vital need and authority of local law enforcement,” a spokeswoman said.

California Gov. Gavin Newsom visited the scene on Thursday and helped clean up some of the boxes that were strewn along the tracks. He announced part of his proposed budget that would grant local law enforcement $255 million over the next three years and create a dedicated unit that would focus on retail, train and auto thefts.

“There’s nothing acceptable about that,” Mr. Newsom said of the thefts. “It looked like a third world country.”

Jim Foote, the CEO of CSX Corp.

, another railroad that operates in the eastern US, said rail theft isn’t as prevalent elsewhere as what he sees in Los Angeles. He recalls having a similar problem in Chicago 20 years ago when he was working for the Canadian National Railway. To deal with this, the railroad tried to avoid stopping trains where they were ransacked.

“We’re doing everything we can to protect our customers’ shipments, but if the train stops at the wrong time and wrong place, modern-day Jesse James will come for you,” Mr Foote said.

Casey Rowcliffe had ordered a battery for his RV that never showed up. He hadn’t thought much about his missing package until he saw the viral video showing the trashed route in Los Angeles.

“I thought it was stuck in port or someone had it,” said the 45-year-old general contractor. The location of the battery remains a mystery. But the box with his address in Bellingham, Washington, was among those found by a Journal reporter. ‘Out of all those packets did you pick mine?’ said Mr Rowcliffe.

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A FedEx spokeswoman said it has taken measures to deter theft, including advanced locking mechanisms on rail vehicles. In cases where railroad cars are tampered with, FedEx works with railroads to recover all shipments that are possible. A UPS spokesman said a collective response is needed to deter criminals and the company has streamlined the claims handling process for shipment issues.

Nellie Bly Kaleidoscopes and Art Glass, the small Arizona shop that sent Ms. Wilde her frame, ships between three and 20 packages a day. When the store was notified that its package had been found torn open in Los Angeles, the store reached out to Ms. Wilde, shipped a replacement, and began the claims process.

Anne Miranda, the store’s shipping manager, said that there are usually only problems with a handful of shipments a year. “That was before the world went crazy,” she said.

write to Paul Ziobro unter [email protected] and Ian Lovett below [email protected]

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