View Original Notice ? Newsom unveils effort to fight theft of LA railroad cargo
Gov. Gavin Newsom rolled into Los Angeles’ Union Pacific railroad Thursday, Jan. 20, to show off rows of unobstructed tracks, having been been swept clean of ravaged shipping boxes and other debris that had littered rail lines in the wake of thieves recently plundering cargo cars.
After spending some time collecting trash off the tracks with CalTrans workers, the governor described a multi-agency effort to continue the rail-line clean-up, and announced expansions to a task force meant to combat retail theft and hold perpetrators accountable.
“Mark my words, this is not a one-off — this organized theft,” Newsom said at a press conference. “These folks are arrested as if they’re not connected to the whole, and we need to change that.”
Expanding the previously established Organized Retail Theft Task Force, Newsom said, is key to properly investigating and prosecuting thieves who target trains.
Bolstering that effort, Newsom said, will be an additional $255 million in grants to local law enforcement over the next three years to increase the police presence in areas where retail theft is high.
Additionally, Newsom said, his plan includes $18 million dollars over the next three years to establish a dedicated unit in the California Attorney General’s office to investigate and prosecute cross-jurisdictional, statewide organized retail theft.
The Los Angeles District Attorney’s office has arrested 280 people for train-robbery related crimes, Newsom said, though he did not provide information on whether any of those arrests have led to convictions; he also did not provide a timeframe for those arrests.
“We must do the investigation work; it’s not just an arrest and walk away,” he said. “And then, present the case and see folks prosecuted. We’re not condoning this behavior.”
To better address the rampant robbery issue, the California Highway Patrol will work with Union Pacific Police, the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and the Los Angeles Police Department to patrol the railroad’s tracks and investigate the organized nature of the crimes.
“We’re working more collaboratively,” Newsom said. “We recognize that we need each other in terms of organizing a framework to support our efforts to hold folks to account and to secure these sites, and to hold folks accountable for the long haul.
Charlie Sampson, assistant chief of the CHP, said that while the LAPD and LASD are assisting in the longer-term investigations, those agencies are not currently patrolling any railroads.
The CHP, Sampson said, is also establishing a special task force assigned to Union Pacific. Personnel and a commander have already been selected for the task force and, Sampson said, the full-time effort will begin immediately.
“We have a lot of different options available to us,” Sampson said. “It’s a growing task force.”
The Union Pacific task force will run for a 90 to 100 day period, Sampson said. Following that test run, the investigation and patrolling efforts will be re-evaluated to see whether they are helping combat and prevent train thefts.
The rail thefts, which began proliferating about the same time the supply chain started to cripple in mid-2020, are consistent with the spike in property crimes the Southland saw last year, as folks fell into financial distress during the coronavirus pandemic.
But Union Pacific is one of the two biggest railroads that transport cargo from the ports of LA and Long Beach. So the rash of rail thefts also highlights yet another way the complex chain that exists between customers ordering goods online and those items arriving at their doors is vulnerable to breaking down.
Nearly a year ago, Los Angeles City Councilman Joe Buscaino introduced a resolution seeking to have miles of Union Pacific Railroad tracks in his district declared public nuisance zones, which would allow the city to clean up the areas at the railroad company’s expense.
Buscaino, whose District 15 includes LA’s Harbor Area and San Pedro, accused the company of failing to maintain the tracks, which “primarily run through communities of color,” including Watts, Wilmington and Harbor Gateway.
At the time, Union Pacific blamed trespassing, unlawful homeless encampments, dumping and other illegal activities for making the company’s maintenance and protection efforts difficult.
Buscaino eased up his pressure after some of the tracks were cleaned, but the issue returned to the public eye as media reports last week displayed images of rail lines strewn anew with packages from retailers, including Amazon, REI and UPS
“This increased criminal activity over the past twelve months accounts for approximately $5 million in claims, losses and damages to UP,” Adrian Guerrero, Union Pacific’s general director for public affairs for California and the Pacific Northwest, wrote in a letter to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon last month.
“And that value does not include respective losses to our impacted customers,” Guerrero added. “Nor does it capture the larger operating or commercial impacts to the UP network or supply chain system in Los Angeles County.”
Railroads are among the latter players in the supply chain — and one of its most important.
About 35% of Port of Los Angeles containers travel via rail.
“This is the supply chain,” Newsom said. “I know everybody is focused on cargo ships down at the ports, but that’s just one part of it. It’s a remarkable, but relatively modest, part compared to the multiplicity of parts and the nuances and complexities that are all of the things you see behind me, not least of which are rail systems.”
The near-dock Intermodal Transfer Container Facility, which Union Pacific operates, handles hundreds of thousands of containers annually for the ports of LA and Long Beach. Union Pacific also operates three off-dock mainline rail yards, according to the Port of Los Angeles, with two others run by BNSF; it’s unknown whether BNSF has also seen rail thefts increase.
And at the Port of Long Beach, 28% of all cargo leaves via on-dock rail, with plans to increase that to 35% once the $1 billion Pier B Rail Yard is finished in 2032.
Moving cargo via rail also tends to be far more efficient than doing via trucks. Underscoring that was the rules the twin ports, the two busiest in the nation, created when announcing a fee on aging import containers at the end of October.
That fee, which has not yet gone into effect, would be charged to ocean carriers for every container that stayed too long at terminals. For those leaving via truck, the threshold was nine days — but for containers leaving on trains, it was six days. (A recently announced extension of that program now makes the threshold nine days for all cargo.)
But that doesn’t mean railroads have avoided the woes that have plagued the rest of the supply chain.
At its peak last year, rail dwell time hit a high of 13.5 days, on average, though that number has consistently dropped since then.
It’s also unclear whether the delays in moving cargo created an opportunity for people to steal from the trains.
A spokeswoman for Union Pacific did not answer questions earlier this week about how the increase in thefts relates, if at all, to the supply chain issues. She also did not answer questions about how the supply chain, in general, has affected the railroad and whether company officials were concerned about their ability to protect cargo moving forward — as plans are in the works for the ports to increase containers leaving via train.
But last year, rail thefts increased by 160%, Guerrero said in an update posted on Union Pacific’s website Sunday.
Guerrero also wrote thefts shot up even more during the peak holiday season — increasing 356% in October 2021 compared to the same month last year.
“That’s why, as we were out there cleaning up, we saw memories that never were — because gifts never arrived. ” Newsom said. “We saw experiences that never took place, because there were ornaments and LED lights and Christmas trees that never arrived.”
While Guerrero in his previous statement said FedEx, UPS and other Union Pacific partners — and perhaps even Union Pacific — are considering moving operations away from Los Angeles County if theft continues at this rate, it appears the governor’s actions today have quelled those intentions, at least for now.
“We needed an effective solution to handle this,” said Bruce Mac Rae, vice president of state government affairs for UPS. “UPS will remain engaged to help ensure our customers’ goods are safe, and that’s our commitment.”
Guerrero, for his part, spoke about collaboration.
“I want to focus on a message today of partnership and action,” Guerrero said at the press conference. “We worked directly with the governor’s office as this issue continued to increase, and they were the first ones to offer their services and drive solutions and ideas.”
He also mentioned the multi-layered approach to stopping thefts focused on law enforcement, technology, infrastructure and criminal justice.
“All of that combined is what is going to help us move forward on this issue,” he said.
Staff Writer Donna Littlejohn and Chris Haire, City News Service and the Associated Press contributed to this report.