California Struggles to Cope With Increasing Train Robberies, Reminiscent of Frontier Era

© REUTERS / GENE BLEVINSLocal resident Luke Mines takes photos as he looks at the mess on railway tracks littered with the remains of items stolen from passing freight trains, in Los Angeles. California. U.S., January 14,2022.
Local resident Luke Mines takes photos as he looks at the mess on railway tracks littered with the remains of items stolen from passing freight trains, in Los Angeles. California. U.S., January 14,2022.  - Sputnik International, 1920, 27.01.2022
Train robberies have been the stuff of American lore since the Wild West and the dawn of the railroad. It seemed that the image of menacing bandits galloping towards trains in search of easy loot had been consigned to Hollywood Westerns and games like Red Dead Redemption 2, but 21st century crooks are approaching things from a new angle.
Recently, images of thousands of plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes, and packaging strewn on train tracks in Los Angeles have dominated social media in the US.
Thieves are robbing train carriages like they once did on horseback in the days of the Wild West, but it has been spurred on by a number of modern realities, such as the rise of e-commerce and Southern California's role as a major supply chain centre.
The problem has sparked a national debate and highlighted a rift between rail operators, government officials, and police over how to curb the robberies. According to the Wall Street Journal, the fact that trains transporting e-commerce packages are being looted in broad daylight, as a rail cars stand parked or slowly make their way to an intermodal hub in the city, is well known, but addressing the problem is tough when all parties involved are playing the blame game.
According to local media reports, a Union Pacific train carrying approximately 17 cars derailed in the middle of the month in the area where the robberies have been occurring. Luckily, the crew was unharmed, but the exact cause is reportedly being investigated.
Thefts along train tracks in Los Angeles County have increased by 160 percent since December 2020, according to Union Pacific, cited in the Los Angeles Times report. The railroad reportedly did not provide particular information on what was stolen or how much was lost, but it did say that the spike in crime cost it at least $5 million last year.
Officials reportedly say a supply chain bottleneck and the existence of homeless encampments along rail lines have contributed to the thefts. Sometimes, street gangs are reportedly involved in plundering cargo trains moving towards the transportation hubs.
To tackle the thefts, Union Pacific is said to be deploying more drones, increasing security, and enlisting the Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department. But, according to Los Angeles Police Capt. German Hurtado, quoted in the LA Times report, Union Pacific is partly responsible for not deploying sufficient security.
"We have millions of dollars of items and equipment, but it is unpoliced,” Hurtado said. “There are even sometimes weapons on these trains. Everything goes by train, you learn."

The Golden State's Rich History of Train Robberies

However, it seems that the Golden State is not currently able to cope with the problem, which has plagued it since the last years of the Civil War and the heyday of the Old West.
The first train heist in California appears to have occurred in 1881, according to a separate LA Times report. A crew of train wreckers, reportedly led by a man who had failed miserably as a gold miner, opted to intercept other men's gold at a less labour-intensive stage of the process.
Throughout the hectic years of the Old West, Union Pacific, founded in 1862, has witnessed its fair share of well-known heists. Butch Cassidy and his gang were immortalised on the silver screen for robbing the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 in Wyoming in 1899. The group brought the train to a halt and detonated a bomb in its safe. A posse was dispatched to track down the bandits.
In the last decades of the 19th century, the Central Valley was hit by a rash of train robberies, according to the report. These were major robberies, complete with gunfire, bullet-riddled bodies, and explosives to clear a path to the loot, which wasn't always as plentiful as the robbers had anticipated.
By the early twentieth century, railway robbery in the Frontier states was well on its way to becoming a film genre. A 12-minute film dubbed "The Great Railway Robbery," a precursor to all the other train robbery films, capitalised on the headlines. It ended with the villain facing the camera and firing his gun at the audience.
Interestingly, the legendary Dalton gang also operated in the state. One of their California train heists ended in their humiliation. A trio of masked Daltons on horseback halted a Southern Pacific train in February 1891 at a settlement now known as Earlimart. They shot the engineer, and one brother fired into the air to keep people at bay while the others tried to compel the cash car's guard to unlock the door. Instead, the guard began shooting through a peephole until the Daltons gave up and rode away empty-handed.
Many of the train robbers mentioned in the report, based on the news stories of the era, had personal motives for raiding the trains of various railroad companies then operating in the state. Both the Union Pacific and Southern Pacific had major influence on the politics and economy of the region during that time, and sometimes even allegedly took land from farmers by force for rail line construction.
The golden era of train robbery ended with the irresistible technological advances of the early 20th century, when companies stopped sending physical money overland and turned to banks.
The robbers quickly had to switch to raiding bank offices and looting rich railway passengers, instead of trying to steal or blow up safes.
The widespread use of well-armed federal marshals and private detectives, often from the infamous Pinkerton National Detective Agency, who collected bounties from the railroad companies for rooting out lawlessness, also helped to defeat this type of crime.
Recently, the problem that has been revived due to the development of trade and modern technology, which still relies heavily on railroads, and the politicisation of lethal violence against non-violent criminals in the wake of the George Floyd killing has ushered in a new wave of theft and robbery, leading to what some are calling a major crisis.
According to the Wall Street Journal report mentioned above, California Governor Gavin Newsom has announced a $225 million grant over the next few years to combat retail and other theft, but overcoming this challenge will require a major effort.
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