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California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) visited a stretch of Union Pacific railroad tracks in Los Angeles on Thursday and helped clean up the littered packaging from thousands of goods stolen from shipping containers. Video of the debris-strewn tracks gained national attention last week, prompting outrage and confusion over how such rampant pillaging could happen in the heart of one of America's largest cities.
"The images looked like a Third World country," Newsom told reporters. "What you saw here in the last week is just not acceptable. So, I took off the suit and tie and said I'm coming because I couldn't take it. I can't turn on the news anymore. What the hell is going on?"
What's going on, experts tell the Los Angeles Times, is that organized crime rings and petty bandits have found a way to exploit a weak link in the supply chain. Trains loaded with goods ordered online often have to wait to enter congested freight yards, and "a train at rest is a train at risk," said Keith Lewis at cargo theft tracker CargoNet.
Union Pacific, in charge of security along its tracks, has also slashed its private police force, former employees and police tell the Times. "Union Pacific from Yuma, Arizona, to L.A. has six people patrolling," said Los Angeles Police Capt. German Hurtado, whose precinct inclues the theft-plagued tracks. "It is like digging sand at the beach."
Union Pacific, a publicly traded company based in Omaha, "is worth $155 billion and reported record profits on Thursday," the Times notes. "The other major railroad operator, BNSF, said it has not seen the same level of theft around its facilities."
Union Pacific would not say how many agents it has, but it did say thefts have jumped 160 percent since December 2020. Various law enforcement agencies arrested 122 people along Union Pacific tracks from February to December 2021, the Times reports, citing LAPD data. Newsom put the number of arrests at 280 and said the thieves and people who fence the stolen goods "need to be held to account."
Robert Vega, who lives near the tracks, told the Times he noticed a sharp spike in thefts about seven months ago, as the police presence waned. On any Friday night, "you could see sparks flying" as thieves cut the locks, he said. "I can come out at night and there are trucks loading up. It's insane."