What’s behind L.A.’s shocking rail heists

With Southern California a global hub for cargo in this e-commerce age, train cars filled with valuable goods are crisscrossing hundreds of miles of track at all hours.

But amid the supply chain congestion at local ports and elsewhere, those trains sometimes sit idle, leaving them vulnerable to thieves in urban rail yards, according to supply chain experts.

“A train at rest is a train at risk,” said Keith Lewis, vice president of operations for CargoNet, a company that tracks cargo thefts. “There’s a backlog of getting trains back to the West Coast from the East Coast. You got a lot of different supply chain issues.”

Under federal law, Union Pacific and other railroad companies can employ their own police force accredited by the state to protect its tracks. Former employees and police say budgetary issues have slashed the ranks of the company’s force, leaving as few as half a dozen in the region. Union Pacific declined to say how many agents it has.

“Union Pacific from Yuma, Ariz., to L.A. has six people patrolling,” said LAPD Capt. German Hurtado, who works in the Hollenbeck station covering Lincoln Heights, where a wave of thefts left debris strewn across Union Pacific tracks last week. “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.”

Union Pacific officials said to beef up enforcement they have been working with the Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department to combat the thefts. The company also deployed drones and is erecting fencing.

Gov. Gavin Newsom was scheduled to visit the Lincoln Heights site Thursday.

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

It’s still unclear how widespread the train thefts have been, with rail operators reporting a big increase in the last year.

The break-ins provide a rare glimpse into a segment of America’s supply chain that relies on a private police system for security.

Union Pacific, based in Omaha and founded 160 years ago, oversees about 3,200 miles of railway in California and has its own police force to protect the tracks. Last year a man and woman suspected of stealing beer pallets from a train in Fontana died fleeing police, and in the Coachella Valley deputies arrested a group of would-be thieves.

Union Pacific officials said the “unprecedented” rash of container break-ins in Los Angeles was unlike others they have seen. The company reported that thefts have jumped 160% since December 2020, with an average of 90 containers a day “compromised.”

The company would not release more specific data on rail burglaries or other crimes, though former employees said the ranks of officers have been slashed by more than half in recent years.

Union Pacific said most of the bandits target boxcars near two rail yards where cargo is transferred from trucks to trains, including the one in Lincoln Heights, occupying about 150 acres just east of downtown.

Much of the train traffic is connected to business generated at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, where about 40% of the nation’s maritime imports enter the U.S. The yards are a key spoke in the supply chain for national retailers, warehouses and other distributors.

The other major railroad operator, BNSF, said it has not seen the same level of theft around its facilities.

Union Pacific said no type of cargo has been immune, and thieves are targeting both inbound and outbound trains. Scavengers last week said they found items including Louis Vuitton bags and robot parts.

Organized crime groups use nearby homeless people to pilfer the cars, said Adrian Guerrero, a director of public affairs for Union Pacific. When UP changes its operations to prevent break-ins, he said the thieves do too — and sometimes go out to the desert to evade security.

Last weekend, people visited the Lincoln Heights tracks to comb through the debris, hoping to make off with items left behind by the rail thieves.

Union Pacific said a derailment occurred Saturday at the same location where thieves pilfered cargo containers. Nobody was hurt and the Federal Railroad Administration is trying to determine the cause of the incident.

The Federal Railroad Administration has been in talks with Union Pacific and the California State Transportation Agency about recent criminal activity along the tracks in Los Angeles, said railroad administration spokesperson Warren Flatau.

“Cargo theft is a criminal matter, and UP has been working with law enforcement as well as identifying and taking appropriate actions to deter such acts. We are closely monitoring the situation to ensure safe operations,” he said.

During October, as suppliers were shipping out for holiday season, Union Pacific reported that thefts spiked 356% compared with the previous year at that time. The railway said criminals assaulted and carried out armed robberies of employees.

But legislators, law enforcement and former Union Pacific employees contend that the company does not provide enough officers, fencing and other protections to prevent crimes around its 275 miles of rail tracks in L.A. County.

“It’s a longstanding effort by Hollenbeck to secure the site. Unfortunately Union Pacific Railroad does little to secure or lock those trains,” said LAPD Deputy Chief Al Labrada, who oversees Central Bureau and worked as a Hollenbeck captain.

For its part, Union Pacific said that the county’s approach to low-level offenders has exacerbated the problem. “Charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine,” Guerrero said in a letter to L.A. County Dist. Atty. George Gascón.

Alex Bastian, an advisor to Gascón, said the district attorney’s office had filed charges in some burglary and grand theft cases, but other cases don’t have enough evidence to prosecute. “Our office takes Union Pacific’s concerns seriously and hopes to discuss this issue more in the coming weeks,” Bastian said in an email.

Nick Vyas, an expert in supply chain management at USC, said he heard from executives in Europe and Asia asking him how these thefts could happen.

“It’s a blatant disregard for the law and I think exposes structural deficiencies in our supply chain,” he said. “The perception of our vulnerability is what concerns me the most.”

Times staff writer Irfan Khan contributed to this report.

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