It appears that Los Angeles has a problem with wide-scale container theft from containers moved by rail into and out of the port of Los Angeles. A video from the Lincoln Heights area of Los Angeles released last week, shows train-loads of containers passing through what looks like an underpass littered with discarded boxes and packaging from previous container wagons that had been broken into and their contents stolen.

Although only publicised outside California in the past week, wide-scale thefts from containers have been a problem in Los Angeles for over a year. At the beginning of 2021 local politicians attempted to declare the Union Pacific tracks passing through large parts of the city a ‘public nuisance’ which would oblige the railway to clear the area of refuse. However, it is unclear if this is really a solution. It seems that there are several underlying problems contributing to the issue.

One of the problems is that of congestion on the rail network. It seems that container trains moving into and out of the port are either travelling so slowly or are stationary for long periods of time, enabling thieves to enter the containers.

Another problem is that America’s large population of homeless people are attracted to residing on property belonging to the railroad or adjacent to it. These homeless people are tempted by the opportunity to steal from the containers. There are also issues that might be described as California specific. Union Pacific wrote in a letter in early December to the Los Angeles County District Attorney protesting that criminals are caught stealing from containers are “arrested, turned over to local authorities for booking, arraigned before the local courts, charges are reduced to a misdemeanour or petty offence, and the criminal is released after paying a nominal fine…these individuals are generally caught and released back onto the streets in less than 24 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 Union Pacific by these same criminals.”

Thefts from containers have been a problem for the shipping sector for many decades. It is difficult to secure containers, not least as the things can be disassembled from the outside. Ports are now so automated that it is difficult for people to enter the main container handling and storage areas in the most advanced terminals. However, thefts from trucks carrying containers, or in the case of European terminals, attempts by ‘people smugglers’ to enter the containers are still a problem.

What is notable about the problem in Los Angeles is the apparent scale of the thefts, the railroad stating that “over 90 containers [are] compromised per day”. As Union Pacific comment, this is a threat to the attractiveness of Los Angeles as a port; “customers like UPS and FedEx that utilize our essential rail service during the 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”.

Source: Transport Intelligence, 18th January 2022

Author: Thomas Cullen

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