Jesse James was one of the first bandits to hold up a moving train. Unlike the Hollywood lore, however, nobody chased trains on horseback and jumped on board.
Instead, near Adair, Iowa, in 1873, James and his gang loosened a section of track on the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway. They used a rope to dislodge the track, derailing the locomotive. It killed the engineer and stopped the rest of the cars on the tracks.
Then, two masked robbers—most likely Jesse James and his brother, Frank—ran from freight car to freight car until they found a safe they thought held a large cache of gold. But they found only $2,000, so they went from passenger car to passenger car, relieving riders of their money and valuables. Even though the amount they netted was small, the boldness of the robbery was big news, and helped establish the James boys as two of America’s first celebrity criminals.
A 2017 article in Criminal Justice Review took a detailed look at data from 241 train robberies between 1866 and 1930. It shows a number of traits that old-school train robberies, including those of the James brothers, had in common: They were hugely dangerous, both for robbers and victims.
Rail crews and passengers did not look kindly on being robbed. In nearly one-third (32.4%) of the robberies, they fought back with fists, guns, or both. In 9.5% of the robberies, at least one bandit was killed on the spot or in pursuit.
It was worse for victims. At least one rail crew member or passenger was shot 29.1% of the time, and at least one victim was killed 13.5% of the time.
The average thefts were small.
The mean loss per robbery was $21,550, but that number included one huge robbery that grossed $2 million. Take that one outlier out of the equation, and it lowers the mean loss to $9,980.
The penalties were harsh, and most robbers were caught or killed.
There’s accurate information for a great number of cases. It reveals that 57.1% of train robbers were imprisoned; 36.7% were killed while being captured, legally executed, or committed suicide; and 2.7% were lynched without ever going to trial.
Railroads, law enforcement, private detectives, and even private citizens went all out to put an end to train robberies.
As a first step, railroad companies armed their employees and offered bonuses for resistance. They created special response teams to catch offenders, and even added a railcar that held horses, so the teams could begin immediate chase if necessary.
They distributed millions of wanted posters nationally and internationally, just for a single offense. Most impressively, local sheriffs or marshals typically formed posses to hunt down the suspects. Some of these groups were huge; one had more than 2,000 volunteers involved in a chase.
These weren’t weekend activities, either. Some posse members spent weeks chasing suspects, and in the process, some were killed or wounded.
Pinkerton agents were even more determined. Some chased their suspects for years over several continents and even disinterred bodies to prove that robbers who were rumored to be dead were actually dead.
In all, for every dollar lost to train robbery, some railways would spend $5 to put the perpetrators behind bars or in the ground.
Obviously, none of these railroad executives, employees, lawmen, or posse members could have predicted what train robbing would be like in 2022, during the term of Los Angeles District Attorney George Gascon.
What’s the danger for today’s robbers and victims?
No guns or horses are involved. Today’s train robbers just wait for the train to stop, usually a short distance from the UPS distribution center in East Los Angeles.
They stroll up to containers on the rail cars, and cut the locks with bolt cutters. Then, they help themselves to packages from Amazon, UPS, and the post office. They stand there, tearing the packages open, looking for Apple watches, Xboxes, and Nike gear they can sell for pennies on the dollar.
They litter the tracks with packages they think are worthless, load the good stuff into their pickups and vans, and drive off into the sunset, only to come back the next day. The Union Pacific railroad reports that an average of 90 containers are broken into every day.
The average thefts are huge.
Union Pacific didn’t release specific data on the value of what was lost, but said the increase in crime cost it at least $5 million last year, not counting losses to all its victimized customers. Between 1866 and 1930, all 261 train robberies that were reported caused fewer losses than that.
Union Pacific is trying to stop the bleeding. It’s deploying drones, has hired extra security, and has asked the Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol, and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to hold off the train robbers. But they don’t get a scrap of cooperation from the ultraliberal Gascon.
In a Dec. 20 letter from Union Pacific’s director of public affairs, Adrian Guerrero, to Gascon, Guerrero summed up the problem clearly:
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  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.
In fact, criminals boast to our officers that charges will be pled down to simple trespassing—which bears no serious consequence.
On Jan. 15, 17 cars of a Union Pacific train derailed in Lincoln Heights, which is “the same area where the vandalism has been occurring,” Union Pacific spokesperson Robynn Tysver said. Fortunately, no crew members were injured.
It’s unclear whether the derailment was deliberate, like the famous James Gang robbery, or just the result of the train trying to plow through tons of litter from previous robberies.
But this much is clear: Until the voters of Los Angeles stand up and recall Gascon from office, there’s no need for local news crews to film the latest train robbery. They can just run the same sad video over and over again.
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