The disappearing railroad package blues

How a garbage-strewn rail yard in downtown Los Angeles portends doom for America.

A dysfunctional Union Pacific rail yard filled with discarded packages and abandoned cargo epitomizes the nation’s current supply chain crisis. Perhaps you’ve seen the striking images of crushed cardboard boxes and ripped-open Amazon and UPS packages picked over by gangs of thieves robbing the shipping containers as they pass through.

It’s gotten so bad that a 17-car train derailed yesterday in the yard, unable to navigate the accumulated piles of garbage. Thieves have been stealing the retail packages that America is waiting on. In a telling detail, the yard is littered with at-home COVID tests that the thieves have left behind.

The railroad reports that 90 containers are robbed on an average day at that location. UPS and FedEx are said to be diverting their business elsewhere.

The trouble with this Los Angeles rail yard is not new. Images started emerging months ago on social media of the chaos at the Lincoln Heights rail yard. The local CBS reporter introduced his Twitter thread on the above-linked report with the following observation,

Keep hearing of train burglaries in LA on the scanner so went to #LincolnHeights to see it all.

Union Pacific railroad is based in Omaha, Nebraska, and is one of seven major railroads operating in the United States. Only Union Pacific and BNSF operate in western states.

To celebrate the 100th anniversary of the 1869 driving of the golden spike at Promontory Point, Utah, Union Pacific commissioned a television commercial and an accompanying song, “Great Big Rollin’ Railroad.” The song was written in 1969 by the same songwriter who years later wrote the No. 1 hit “Convoy” about outlaw trucking. At the time, the future C.W. McCall was then an obscure advertising man named Bill Fries, working in Omaha, Nebraska.

The UP ode included lyrics such as,

We’re a thousand wheels of freight train / Hear the diesel engines’ power / We’re the Union Pacific / Doin’ 90 miles an hour

The derailed train, tripped up by its own garbage, suggests otherwise. Later in the song, we hear,

On the mainline to the sea / Cross the flats at Salt Lake City / On to Vegas and LA / We’re the Union Pacific / And we’ve got the right of way

And that right-of-way ownership leads to the biggest quirk of this story: Union Pacific has its own private police force. All major railroads (and many minor ones) field their own federally sworn police force, to maintain law and order on their own property, with full police powers. The origins of this unique arrangement date back to the days of the Pinkertons.

However, the UP police seem unable to maintain order in this apparently unfenced yard, even while representing a private entity and not answering to voters or local politicians. Los Angeles city police refer inquires back to Union Pacific, as the local police have no jurisdiction on railroad property.

For their part, Union Pacific points back to Los Angeles County District Attorney George Gascon for not prosecuting enough cases of package theft. Gascon cites a lack of evidence gathered by the train cops. You will recall that Gascon was formerly the San Francisco district attorney, but moved to Los Angeles, a switch that somehow resulted in both jurisdictions lurching to the political left.

The situation is reaching a boiling point. The railroad is threatening to pull out of Los Angeles County altogether. As the county hosts the massive Los Angeles-Long Beach seaport complex, the withdrawal of Union Pacific from the market would be a catastrophe for the nation’s supply chain.