New Options to Stop LA's Intermodal Rail Theft Problem

intermodal rail
James St. John / CC BY 2.0

Published Jan 24, 2022 10:08 PM by Harry Valentine

During mid-January, news reports from Los Angeles exposed the ongoing problem of theft from shipping containers carried aboard slow-moving trains. Thieves climb aboard slow-moving trains and cut open locks of container doors before throwing out boxes of items. There may be a few strategies that while initially costly, could reduce future theft from containers while being carried at low speed aboard railway cars.


Brazen thieves have been boarding slow moving container trains in a district of Los Angeles to open doors of containers and throw out boxes of merchandise. While televised news reports inform the general public at large of the epidemic of theft, there is a risk of the theft epidemic spreading other large American cities where trains travel slowly through heavily populated areas. The basic methods for stealing goods in transit can be traced back for decades, with thieves hijacking trucks carrying valuable merchandise or opening rear doors when trucks are delayed in heavy traffic.

Theft rings in Los Angeles trespass onto railway property and board railway cars where doors of containers are easily accessible. They cut locks to open the doors before rapidly throwing out boxes of merchandise. They take only most valuable items and leave less marketable merchandise on the side of railway lines. Despite the railway company employing their own police department, organized gangs have discovered ways of working around the railway police, while courts refuse to prosecute people for trespassing on railway property.

Railway Strategy

While railway strategies include rerouting trains via alternate tracks to avoid the thieves, implementing such a strategy would increase delays for cargo movement by rail in the Los Angeles region. There might be merit in increasing the presence of additional security personnel in areas that have the highest rate of theft from containers carried aboard slow-moving trains. Another strategy might involve making technical modifications to the transportation technology, using mass production techniques to reduce the per-item cost and using automation to assist in installing the modifications.

The magnitude of the theft problem would likely determine the response strategy, especially if the problem were to spread to other large cities. Many railway routes involve the combination of single line track with sidings. One train has to stop in a siding for a train traveling in the opposite direction to pass by. The stopped train becomes vulnerable to thieves who seek open doors of easily accessible containers and offload boxes of merchandise. Railways would need to respond in the even that theft from containers on trains becomes more widespread.

Thieves who steal merchandise from slow moving trains focus on containers where the doors are quick and easy to access and open. American railway systems carry containers in double stacked formation, using a combination of deep-well cars and extended length flat-deck cars. The design of the deep-well cars includes a barrier at each end of the lower level containers and prevents opening of container doors. Upper level containers are especially vulnerable. On extended length flat-deck cars, loading containers oriented door-to-door would be a simple way to prevent the doors from being opened.

Extended-Height Bulkheads

Retrofitting extended-height, narrow bulkheads to each end of deep-well railway cars would restrict the cars to carrying only 40-foot containers. The small space between bulkheads and container doors would greatly increase the difficulty of opening the doors. Retrofitting narrow raised bulkheads at each end of flat-deck container cars would allow each railcar to carry two 40-foot containers on each level, with limited space to open the doors. Narrow bulkheads would allow yard staff to guide the loading of container trains. Railway companies would require special bulkhead equipped cars to carry 53-foot containers.

The feasibility of mass producing and retrofitting raised bulkheads to railway container cars – and building dedicated cars to each carry a pair of double stacked 53-foot containers - would depend on the future magnitude of the theft problem involving slow-moving trains. If the theft from containers carried aboard trains spreads nationwide, railways would need to consider installing technical modifications to rail container cars to lessen the problem, along with modifications to port cranes.

Crane Versatility

While the majority of shipping containers are built to 40-feet length, regulations allow passage for trailers of 53-feet length along the American interstate highway system. Some American states now allow passage for trailers built to 60-feet length along main roadways, allowing a single such flat-deck trailer to carry a combination of containers built to 40-feet and 20-feet length placed door-to-door to prevent theft during transit. Mobile rubber-tire picker vehicles that transfer containers at smaller terminals are able to place shipping containers door-to-door on flat-deck road trailers and flat-deck container railcars.

Existing maritime port cranes are unable to quickly rotate containers through 180-degrees to place containers door-to-door on flat-bed railcars, to limit access to container doors. Replacing 53-foot length road trailers with 60-foot trailers could introduce a new generation of 60-foot container to domestic North American service, allowing for the combination of a 60-foot and a 20-foot container being placed within an 80-foot length on flat-deck railcars with raised bulkheads. The combination of modified railway cars and revised regulations for on-road trailers to carry 60-foot length containers could limit theft from containers while in railway transit.


Reports of ongoing theft of merchandise from containers carried on trains that travel slowly through an area of Los Angeles could result in such activity spreading to other large cities across the USA. Installing narrow bulkheads at the ends of railway container cars offer a possible method by which to restrict access to container doors and restrict as to how far the doors could open. The future magnitude of theft from containers carried by rail would determine as to whether to implement such a strategy.

Top image: James St. John / CC BY 2.0 

The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.