The New York Times Magazine ran a lengthy story about the scourge of modern robber barons: massive thefts from trains. It turns out, the super-long container trains that the duopoly of railroad companies run throughout the western US don't seem worth defending, unless you talk to the shippers' insurance companies. The threads of early-21st-century corporate amalgamation all kind of come together in this one story:
Some 20 million containers move through the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach every year, including about 35 percent of all the imports into the United States from Asia. Once these steel boxes leave the relative security of a ship at port, they are loaded onto trains and trucks — and then things start disappearing. The Los Angeles basin is the country’s undisputed capital of cargo theft, the region with the most reported incidents of stuff stolen from trains and trucks and those interstitial spaces in the supply chain, like rail yards, warehouses, truck stops and parking lots. Cases of reported cargo theft in the United States have nearly doubled since 2019....
The most extreme type of modern train theft occurs when thieves cut the air-compression brake hoses that run between train cars, thereby triggering an emergency braking system. When that happens, the engineer stays in the cab and the conductor walks the length of the stopped train, trying to locate the source of the problem. (Thieves can also stop a train by decoupling some of its cars.) Of course, if a train is miles long, that walk takes a while. In the meantime, the pilferers unload.
On the website of Operation Boiling Point, which the Department of Homeland Security recently created to go after organized theft groups, the agency states that cargo theft accounts for between $15 billion and $35 billion in annual losses. The Federal Bureau of Investigation, in a statement emailed to me, estimated that cargo-theft losses amounted to $1 billion nationally in 2021, but the agency acknowledged that that was an undercount.
Over the past decade, in a push for greater efficiency, and amid record-breaking profits, the country’s largest railroads have been stringing together longer trains. Some now stretch two or even three miles in length. At the same time, these companies cut the number of employees by nearly 30 percent, so fewer people now manage these longer trains.
The technology exists to make containers less susceptible to theft. Companies sell container-locking devices with GPS and cellular connectivity that permit the containers to be tracked at all times. Sensors stuck on the freight itself can report locations and precise conditions inside containers, including temperature, humidity and the bumpiness of the ride. Containers can be outfitted with smart seals, motion-detection alarms, video surveillance and infrared imaging systems that can detect intruders’ body heat. And yet, the locks so often used to secure containers with hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of merchandise inside are easier to cut off than the lock I use to secure my old beater bicycle.
Why? The answers were varied, but as far as I can tell, the reason is that in the last several decades, the cost of shipping has fallen so much that cheap shipping has become part of the essential energy force pushing the tsunami of low-cost goods across the seas and onto our shores. A company with 20,000 containers might decide it isn’t worth an extra $10 per container for better locks or seals. In part because even if they did opt for the upgraded security, who or what would respond when the alarm goes off or when the smart seal sends notice that it’s been breached?
I would call this a case of seriously misaligned incentives, not to mention a field ripe for the kinds of regulation that made the world a lot less horrific than it was the last time corporations got this big in the 1890s and 1900s.
Perhaps the Republican Party will resume its duties in government soon, so that we can fix some of these problems. Unless, of course, their ineffectuality is a feature, not a bug.