Seventeen Union Pacific train cars derailed last week along the same tracks experiencing mass looting in Los Angeles. Union Pacific recently blamed the staggering 160 percent increase in thefts since September 2020 on the Los Angeles district attorney, but the fault may lie, at least in part, with plain old short-sighted greed.
The cars jumped the track in Lincoln Heights. No one was hurt, and Union Pacific told news outlets like KTLA the cause of the derailment is currently under investigation.
The derailment occurred in a loading and unloading area where trains have to slow down or stop, which gives thieves time to do their dirty work. But anyone who has ever listened to a Tom Waits song knows railroads typically employ their own security forces. Los Angeles police told CBSLA officers typically don’t interfere with railroad business unless asked by the company, which Union Pacific said in a press release it is now doing. In that same release, Union Pacific blasted LA district attorney George Gascón as soft on crime due to his policy on not charging low-level defendants cash bails.
But it turns out that Union Pacific laid off an unspecified amount of workers, including railroad police, in September 2020. Two months later, the thefts began. An employee who wished to remain anonymous told LA Taco that Union Pacific should be shouldering a little more of the blame for the thefts:
The Union Pacific Police department has jurisdiction over the 32,000 miles of track Union Pacific owns. Many of these “special agents” used to patrol this now infamous stretch of track. According to the source, the number of patrolling officers has been cut from 50 to 60 agents to eight, which the worker thinks has led to an increase in train robberies.
I don’t really put a ton of stock into an unnamed source, so I reached out to Union Pacific about the claim. A spokesperson told me the following:
We brought in dozens of Union Pacific special agents from across our 23-state-network during the peak season months of 2021. We continued to keep that increased presence in LA over the last several months. We have a positive, longstanding relationship with the Los Angeles Police Department and area law enforcement, and we look forward to working together to ensure that criminals are brought to justice and held accountable.
So this year they’ve brought in more muscle, but that didn’t really address the claim. I went and did a little more digging. According to Union Pacific’s own press release on the matter, thefts shot up in the last quarter of 2020:
Since December 2020, UP has experienced an over 160% increase in criminal rail theft in Los Angeles County. In several months during that period, the increase from the previous year surpassed 200%. In October 2021 alone, the increase was 356% over compared to October 2020. Not only do these dramatic increases represent retail product thefts – they include increased assaults and armed robberies of UP employees performing their duties moving trains.
What happened in 2020 to lead to so much theft? Sure, the economy was imploding, lockdowns were barely easing and everything was falling apart, but it might have something to do with Union Pacific layoffs in September of 2020, which were reported on by industry publication Freight Waves:
The railroad attributed the “workforce reduction” to its broader efforts to implement precision scheduled railroading, an operational model that seeks to streamline operations. Union Pacific (UP) said the reduction affected both management and unionized employees across its 23-state system.
“These are difficult decisions; however, we remain committed to providing our customers safe, efficient and reliable service that ensures Union Pacific remains a strong and competitive company,” UP said.
It’s not clear what capacity Union Pacific employed workers who were let go. Union Pacific describes its own policing force as “...more than 200 police officers.” That may seem small for a company that operates over 8,000 engines over 32,000 miles of track, but the figure likely doesn’t represent the company’s full security force.
However, we do have a general idea of what the raw numbers of employees look like, as general employment in railroads is tracked by the federal Surface Transportation Board. According to Union Pacific’s annual report, the company ended 2019 with 23,096 employees. In 2020, that number fell to 20,0334. And by the end of 2021, that number fell again to 18,408 in the third quarter of 2021. That’s 4,688 fewer employees during one of the worst shipping and logistic crunches in living memory. Of course, not all of those laid off are officers, but some are.
Employment numbers remain lower than pre-pandemic levels despite record profits for the rail operator. Union Pacific reported a net income of $6.5 billion for 2021. Union Pacific said in its press release it is sending current and new Special Agents (which is what it calls railroad police) to address the problem, as well as working with various Los Angeles law enforcement agencies. It’s also looking to use “...drones, specialized fencing, trespass detection systems, and other measures.”
Union Pacific goes on to blame LA’s no cash-bail reforms for low level offenders for the thefts and even claims it is considering rerouting freight to avoid Los Angeles altogether:
But even with these expanded resources and closer partnerships with local law enforcement, we find ourselves coming back to the same results with the Los Angeles County criminal justice system. Criminals are caught and arrested, turned over to local authorities for booking, arraigned before the local courts, charges are reduced to a misdemeanor or petty offense, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine. These individuals are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than twenty-four hours. Even with all the arrests made, the no-cash bail policy and extended timeframe for suspects to appear in court is causing re-victimization to UP by these same criminals. In fact, criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing – which bears no serious consequence. Without any judicial deterrence or consequence, it is no surprise that over the past year UP has witnessed the significant increase in criminal rail theft described above.
As a result of Los Angeles County’s rail theft crisis, customers like UPS and FedEx that utilize our essential rail service during peak holiday season are now seeking to divert rail business away to other areas in the hope of avoiding the organized and opportunistic criminal theft that has impacted their own business and customers. Like our customers, UP is now contemplating serious changes to our operating plans to avoid Los Angeles County. We do not take this effort lightly, particularly during the supply chain crisis, as this drastic change to our operations will create significant impacts and strains throughout the local, state, and national supply chain systems.
The fact that the other major freight train operator in LA, BNSF, has not seen similar thefts, according to the Los Angeles Times, is quite telling (though with a looming strike of its 17,000 unionized workers, BNSF’s good luck might be running out.) BNSF’s employee numbers wavered by only a few hundred over the last few years. One of Union Pacific’s contract workers also told KTLA that the locks on the containers are also incredibly flimsy, which seems like an easy fix when compared to drone fly-overs.
I’m not one to beat the “more cops” drum, obviously, but laying off thousands of workers in the middle of a pandemic, when shipping was more critical than ever, seems like a short-sighted move motivated by quarterly reports. Union Pacific has the money to protect freight. A whole city’s justice system shouldn’t need to bend to one train company’s demands.