Union Pacific Has An Innovative Solution to Train Theft: Slightly Better Locks

But still easily breakable ones.
PATRICK T. FALLON / Contributor via Getty
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Back in January, a particular stretch of freight rail line in Los Angeles made international news for being the site of a massive, ongoing train robbery, with empty boxes and packages blanketing the rail bed. Almost a full year later, Union Pacific, the freight rail company that runs trains along that track, has identified a solution: Slightly better locks.


In an announcement to its customers—the shippers who actually load and secure freight rail cars—the company declared that effective December 5 it will require freight car doors be locked with cables or bolts at least one-eighth of an inch thick in order to deter “ordinary seal removal techniques, such as bolt cutters.” The railroad will no longer consider tin or plastic seals sufficient. 

As someone who has had multiple locked bikes in New York City stolen, I have some bad news for Union Pacific. For an individual with bolt cutters, a one-eighth inch cable will provide approximately zero inconvenience or theft deterrent. Cable locks less than half an inch thick can easily be broken by a single squeeze of a bolt cutter. It actually takes less time to break a ⅛-inch cable lock with bolt cutters then it would to unlock the thing with a key. 

In June, Union Pacific was sued by a Singapore company whose goods were stolen off the train. In the announcement, Union Pacific said it has the right to refuse any container that does not comply with the new rules and is not responsible for any cargo loss that does. But it will happily notify customers via email if their goods are stolen.