Commercial Cargo Thefts: Some Great — And Just Plain Odd — Train Heists Of Our Time

August 16, 2021

By Deepti Govind

Jesse James and his band of outlaws are probably not immediately associated with train heists, given banks were more their area of, er, expertise. Yet one of that outlaw’s most infamous burglaries was of a moving train that he and his gang believed was hauling a big shipment of gold, heading west to east via the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway. So somewhere likely in the middle of July, in the year 1873, James and his gang of co-outlaws — allegedly seven of them — hit up their “sources” and managed to discover that the shipment would be passing through Adair, Iowa one evening that month.

The gang — that included James’s brother Frank — is said to have ridden to a point west of Adair, where a sharp curve in the track was identified by them as the perfect spot to use to ensure the train’s derailment. There, they loosened a section of the track on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railway. It is said that as the train rounded the curve, driven by the unsuspecting engineer John Raffeity, James and his gang used a rope that they had tied around the loosened section of track to dislodge it, causing the train to derail and topple into a ditch. 

When Raffeity suddenly noticed an inexplicable movement on the track, he is said to have quickly put the engine in reverse but it was far too late, according to a paper published by the State Historical Society of Iowa. The engineer lost his life in the ensuing crash, which resulted in only the engine and the tender (i.e., the coal car) being thrown off while the rest of the train remained upright and came to a halt on the tracks. Two Pullman sleeper coaches and five day coaches made up the rest of the train. Luckily, although several passengers were bruised, none suffered any life threatening injuries.

With everyone on the train shaken, James and his outlaws appeared, running at the train from both sides, pistols blazing. They boarded the express car (cars that carried high-value freight) and took all the money it contained. Sadly for James and his band, that amounted to just a few thousand dollars and not the near-$75,000 in gold they were expecting. They went around robbing the passengers instead — to make up for their error, perhaps. The train that was actually carrying the $75,000 gold shipment is said to have whizzed past down the same track between 12 and 24 hours after James and his gang robbed the wrong train, although this is a disputed fact that’s never really been proven, according to the State Historical Society of Iowa paper.

That was by no means America’s first train robbery. But the sheer audacity of it, and the fact that it was James who was involved, made it a story that spread far and wide, even all the way to Europe. James and his gang had to remain in hiding for quite a while after this somewhat-misplaced train heist.

Overall, cargo thefts hit a five-year high in 2020 according to an annual report by Sensitech, a product and service provider of solutions to monitor the supply chain, Truckinginfo reported in April. Cargo theft increased in terms of both volumes and values in the U.S. last year. So far, the levels of theft activity for the first quarter were similar to the same period last year, cargo theft recording firm CargoNet reported, according to a CCJ story.

Granted, train or rail cargo thefts are not at the top of the list in terms of the mode of transport where most cargo thefts occur. An overwhelming majority of cargo thefts typically occur due to robberies of trucks (71%), and burglaries of facilities (parking lots and the like) account for 25% while all other modalities of theft fall under a mere 4%, according to the 2021 cargo theft report by BSI Supply Chain Services and Solutions and TT Club. But as with Jesse James and his band of outlaws, when rail cargo thefts do happen, they are generally cause for much concern. Permit us to explain why through a few more select stories in today’s piece.

Of Taps, TVs, And Grenades

Given that India has one of the largest railroad networks in the world, it’s perhaps no surprise that it ranks among the top five countries in the world for cargo theft, along with Brazil, Mexico, Germany, Russia, and the United Kingdom, per the BSI-TT Club report. In India, it is the task of the Railway Protection Force (RPF) to safeguard railway property and to provide security to passengers. Since its inception in 1872, we’re sure the RFF must have seen its share of the bizarre. But one story from last year particularly caught our eye.

In 2020, the RFF managed to nab a thief in the state of Tamil Nadu, in southern India. His loot: 28 stainless steel taps stolen from a train called the Cholan Express, a feat that left a trail of baffled passengers wondering why the bathrooms on the train suddenly had no taps. Odder still, the Cholan Express tap thief was not alone, and neither was it the only such incident of its kind. The stealing of taps from Indian trains is a “trend” that began in western India, in the country’s financial hub of Mumbai, and appears to have spread to the south. Authorities believe it’s an organized group of burglars that are pulling off the taps. It was only after thieves stole bathroom accessories worth Rs. 5 lakh (about $6,700) from two trains in Mumbai that the matter became serious, according to a report by the New Indian Express.

In another instance, a gang of ten robbers in the U.S. decided to target televisions on a train. This July, in Memphis, Tennessee, thieves tried to make away with televisions that would’ve fetched them nearly $70,000. The men probably hid out in a wooded area that has a path leading right up to the tracks. Memphis police got a call about a train burglary in progress. When they got there, they found it was a boxcar of a CSX Transportation train that had been burgled, and the thieves were seen loading big screen TVs into a pickup truck and a white SUV.

All but one of the suspects managed to run away and evade the police. A 21-year-old was nabbed by the cops, though, and charged with burglary, theft of property, and evading arrest. Police say the pickup truck and white SUV that the thieves were loading their stash into was also stolen. As with the case of the tap thieves, in this instance too, it wasn’t the first recent boxcar burglary attempt.

Six months before the Memphis train heist, thieves made off with big screen TVs worth $60,000 from another CSX train, according to Action News5. In that case, the $60,000 worth of TVs were later found at a home, along with more than $4,000 in cash, weapons, and marijuana. Police arrested several people in that case. And in June, the Wichita Falls police in Texas announced that they had made another arrest in the case of a gang connected to railroad cargo thefts. Interviews of suspects in this case led to other possible suspects in a ring that involved the theft of everything from air conditioning units and furniture, to tires, cigarettes, TVs, and motorcycles from rail cars.

Meanwhile, a box of stolen armor-piercing grenades caught everyone’s attention when it went missing from an ammunition train that rolled out of Florida a while back. The grenades can penetrate three inches of steel and have a kill radius of nearly 50 feet. They’re linked together and fed into an MK-19 launcher, a sort of machine gun for grenades that can shoot one nearly a mile every second. The box of 30 grenades ended up behind a construction company owner’s home in southwest Atlanta. Christopher Zachery, the homeowner who found the metal box that was stuffed inside a bright pink pillowcase stashed in the bushes, said the discovery left him scared and confused.

Atlanta police evacuated five houses in both directions of Zachery’s, as well as the houses across the street. Investigators concluded the box was last seen eight months ago on an ammunition train and were probably stolen somewhere on the rails to Pennsylvania, the Associated Press reported. The train is said to have passed through Atlanta twice before it arrived 17 days later at Letterkenny Army Depot in central Pennsylvania, where a worker unpacking the container discovered the theft. The most shocking part about this train heist, though, is not that investigators have not yet unearthed any real clues to the identity of the thief or thieves. What Zachery discovered was a canister that is typically packed with 32 rounds. Yet the one he found only had 30, which means two grenades with the capacity of a 50-foot kill radius remain missing.

In today’s piece, we’ve barely scratched the tip of the proverbial iceberg of the problem that is railroad cargo theft, which can sometimes even bring entire systems to a standstill. For instance, last year, South Africa’s commuter rail services all but ground to a halt due to a cable theft epidemic that involved the burglary of hundreds of kilometers (or over 60 miles) of overhead cables, signaling wires, and catenary masts. Mexico, which also ranks high among incidents of cargo theft, witnessed an average of two railcar robberies a week in 2019, a number that shot up to three per day in the first six months of 2020, according to a Mexico News Daily report from last August.

Although not directly related to railroads, when the Suez Canal was blocked by a massive container ship earlier this year, one of the worries that the unprecedented buildup caused for everyone in the supply chain was the increased risk of freight crime. In March, when billions of doses of coronavirus vaccines were going to be dispatched via trucks, planes, ships, and rail to hospitals, clinics, and pharmacies around the world, it was considered to be one of “the biggest” security challenges “in a generation” for all freight haulers.

We could go on about other big, or bizarre, rail cargo thefts. But those — and an exploration of the various kinds of cargo thefts starting with the largest, trucking — are stories for another day.

This is the first piece in a series of articles Biometrica plans to do on commercial cargo thefts.