It’s the Wild West 21st century version in Los Angeles.
Thieves are finding it an easy Mark to break into railcars loaded with consumer goods. Predictably the Union Pacific Corporation which has a slim police force, 200 officers in 23 States, is blaming the “progressive” LA District Attorney for its failure to keep its property safe.
LA District Attorney George Gascon, a former Chief of Police in San Francisco, is spot on when he responded to the Union Pacific, “My Office is not tasked with keeping your sites secure.”
Excerpted from The Wall Street Journal 1.24.2022
Michelle Wilde bought a piece of sand art during a visit to Jerome, Ariz., earlier this month. Rather than carry it home, she had the shopkeeper ship the $145 frame to her.
Instead of arriving at her home in Everett, Wash., the package ended up next to a railroad track in East Los Angeles. The frame was gone. The box remained.
It was among thousands of boxes recently found littered along Union Pacific Corp. UNP -0.40% tracks in the middle of Los Angeles. Thieves had broken into the train cars and made off with items shipped by Dr. Martens, Harbor Freight Tools and small businesses alike. The scene has set off finger-pointing between the railroad, local officials and police about who is to blame and how to stop a modern twist on one of the country’s oldest crimes.
“Why are people breaking into [railcars] and why is no one doing anything?” Ms. Wilde said, when she was contacted by a Wall Street Journal reporter to inform her of the fate of her package. “We’re like in year 13 of a pandemic so nothing surprises me about human behavior.”
Union Pacific said it has seen a 160% jump in criminal rail theft in Los Angeles since December 2020, including sharper increases in the months leading up to Christmas, when trailers are loaded with inventory bound for stores or gifts shipped to homes. The total losses to Union Pacific, with a market capitalization of $155 billion, have come to $5 million over the past year. That doesn’t include losses tallied by customers shipping on its rails
Train robberies date to the dawn of railroads, and Union Pacific has had its share of famous heists. In 1899, Butch Cassidy’s gang robbed the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 as it passed through Wyoming. The group stopped the train and blew up its safe. A posse was sent out in pursuit of the bandits.
Railroads combat the problem with their own police forces. Union Pacific has more than 200 police officers, but they must patrol thousands of miles of track across 23 states.
Lance Fritz, Union Pacific’s chief executive officer, said rail theft has been a mostly small-scale problem. What is happening in Los Angeles is different. A couple of years ago, opportunistic individuals might see a mile-plus-long train inching through the city and pry open a car to see what was inside, maybe grab a few items, he said, but “today, that’s more organized.”
Adrian Guerrero, a general director of public affairs at Union Pacific, said lenient prosecution means many of those arrested for rifling through railcars have their charges reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense—and are often quickly released. “We just don’t see the criminal justice system holding these people accountable,” Mr. Guerrero said.
In a letter responding to Mr. Guerrero sent on Friday, Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascón said the number of cases submitted to his office in which Union Pacific was listed as the victim had fallen each of the past two years, from 78 cases in 2019 to 47 in 2021. The DA brought charges in 55% of those cases, Mr. Gascón said, with the others dismissed for lack of evidence or because they didn’t involve allegations of burglary, theft or tampering.
“It is very telling that other major railroad operations in the area are not facing the same level of theft at their facilities as UP,” Mr. Gascón wrote. “My Office is not tasked with keeping your sites secure.”