Train Robberies Are Back

Freight trains loaded with valuable merchandise sitting on apparently unguarded tracks make for awfully inviting targets.
January 14, 2022, 3:13pm
Freight train
Screenshot: Youtube via NBC4
Screen Shot 2021-02-24 at 3
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For months, Union Pacific freight trains have been getting systematically robbed in the Los Angeles area, according to local news reports, as thieves target valuable merchandise and online orders from retailers like Amazon sitting on delayed trains.

A report on Thursday by CBSLA found thousands of boxes and plastic packaging strewn across the railroad tracks in downtown Los Angeles, a section of track where Union Pacific trains wait to unload freight. According to CBSLA, the thieves run in, cut the locks on the freight cars, open packages, and discard anything they don’t want and the packaging for the things they do end up taking. 

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A tweet about this story from CBSLA’s photojournalist John Schreiber went viral Thursday night. As of this writing on Friday morning, it has more than 17,200 retweets and the attached video has 2.3 million views.

But this is hardly the first report of freight train robberies in the Los Angeles area recently. In November, NBC4 found a similar operation in East LA, where, according to NBC4, the thieves blew whistles to alert each other when they were being watched. There, the thieves targeted containers with the FedEx logo emblazoned on them.

And back in August, CBSLA reported that workers clearing a homeless camp in Pomona found “a treasure trove of cargo that was apparently stolen in a series of train heists from Union Pacific Trains.” It is unclear if these three reports are identifying activity from the same organized ring or are different groups. 

Have you seen or heard anything about freight train robberies in your area? Have you been impacted by them? We’d love to hear from you. Email Aaron.Gordon@vice.com.

Although it may sound like a bygone method of heist, robbing freight trains is not unheard-of in modern times. But it has previously required some degree of sophistication to accomplish. In the early 2000s, a group of freight train robbers operated out of northern New Jersey for more than a decade with the organization of a carefully choreographed operation to hit trains on the move. They were the subject of a 2005 TV documentary called “The Conrail Boyz.”

But the Los Angeles robberies appear different. Union Pacific transports cargo from the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach—two of the busiest and most congested ports in the world—to inland destinations. Delays in loading and unloading cargo likely mean the freight trains are sitting on tracks near populated areas for longer times, making them easier to rob.

Part of the problem appears to be a lack of clear responsibility for who should be policing the tracks. Union Pacific has its own police force that is responsible for “crimes committed against the railroad,” but they can call local police for assistance. The history of Union Pacific’s private police force goes back to the Pinkertons. But CBSLA reports the LAPD is rarely asked to help with reports of train robberies.

Union Pacific told CBSLA that it is “very concerned” about the robberies and has “taken several steps” to address it. Back in November, Union Pacific issued a statement, according to NBC4, saying they were “aware” of the thefts and working with local law enforcement to address them.

While some people will obviously be disappointed and angered not to receive their packages, others appear a bit less irritated. One woman who CBSLA contacted about her stolen package said, “Yeah, I don’t even know what would be in that box. I buy so much from Amazon and send so much stuff back that I wouldn’t even know what it was.”