Essential California: Rail thefts leave L.A. train tracks littered with packages

Crews repair a section of detached railroad track near downtown Los Angeles
Crews repair a section of detached railroad track near downtown Los Angeles that’s been the site of numerous burglaries of train containers.
(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Good morning, and welcome to the Essential California newsletter. It’s Monday, Jan. 17 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day. I’m Elvia Limón, filling in for Justin Ray.

When railroads opened up in the West in the 19th century, they transported everything from people to supplies — transforming them into tempting targets for bandits. And apparently, that’s still true more than a century later.

On Saturday, railroad tracks in Lincoln Heights were trashed with a blizzard of torn plastic wrappers, cardboard boxes and paper packaging attesting to a wave of rail car thievery that officials say has been rising in recent months. The images have generated national attention and revealed tension among rail operators, government officials and authorities over what can be done to reduce the thefts, as my colleagues Rachel Uranga, Irfan Khan and Richard Winton write.


Union Pacific reported what it claimed was a 160% increase since December 2020 in thefts along the railroad tracks in Los Angeles County. The railroad didn’t release specific data, but it said the increase in crime cost the company at least $5 million last year.

A bottleneck in the supply chain and the presence of homeless encampments near rail lines have contributed to the thefts, officials said.

What about all of that trash that’s plaguing the area?

Last year, Los Angeles Councilman Joe Buscaino called for the city to declare miles of the tracks a public nuisance, which would have allowed the city to clean up the areas of the railroad at Union Pacific’s expense. But the effort was dropped after the company cleaned up a swath of tracks, said his spokesperson. Still, Buscaino said, Union Pacific needs to hire more agents to patrol the tracks.

Union Pacific is deploying more drones, has brought in extra security and enlisted the Los Angeles Police Department, California Highway Patrol and the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department to combat the thefts, a railroad official said.

But Union Pacific is partly to blame for not deploying more security, said Los Angeles Police Capt. German Hurtado, who works in the Hollenbeck Division.

And now, here’s what’s happening across California:


Note: Some of the sites we link to may limit the number of stories you can access without subscribing.

A father’s death, a son’s despair: How COVID upended a family. Last summer, COVID-19 swept through the Reyes family. Within weeks, Anthony Sr. was dead. His son, Anthony Jr., held in his tears so he could console his mother and two sisters. On Dec. 27, Anthony Jr. took his own life. He did not leave a note explaining his despair. But he had endured a pandemic, the loss of his father, the pain of isolation and the heartaches that come with being a teenager. The pandemic, which has seemed to drag on for a lifetime, has worsened a mental health crisis for youths across the country. Los Angeles Times


Bob Johnson, founder and board chair of LA Works, speaks to volunteers
Bob Johnson, founder and board-chair of LA Works, speaks to volunteers taking part in service work at Orville Wright STEAM Magnet Middle School during Martin Luther King Jr. Day in 2020.
(Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times)

COVID tests, other public service events on MLK Day in L.A. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a federal holiday, is observed each year on the third Monday of January and is designated as a national day of public service. This year’s festivities include free pop-up COVID-19 testing and vaccination sites, clothing drives, virtual handwritten letter events and more. Los Angeles Times

Popular talk radio host Michael Jackson dies at 87. Jackson, who had Parkinson’s disease, died peacefully at home surrounded by his three children, a family spokesperson said. He was best known for his collegial and non-combative style as he interviewed presidents, celebrities, authors and ordinary Angelenos, most notably during his reign at the top of local ratings while at KABC-AM from 1966 to 1998. Los Angeles Times


Single-payer healthcare advocates rip Gov. Gavin Newsom for ‘flip-flop.’ The California Nurses Assn. endorsed Newsom for governor in 2018 but now it’s ready to throw Newsom under the bus because the governor has been uncharacteristically silent about a bill that would create a single-payer system. San Francisco Chronicle

Ken Calvert, onetime foe of same-sex marriage, wants to represent LGTBQ haven Palm Springs. Calvert’s record on LGBTQ issues as the Inland Empire’s longest-serving Congress member concerns the city’s mayor and LGBTQ advocates. Calvert and Palm Springs were matched together late last month through California’s political redistricting, which happens every 10 years after the census. Palm Springs is one of America’s most LGBTQ-friendly cities. Meanwhile, Calvert has voted to ban same-sex marriage. Press-Enterprise

Support our journalism

Subscribe to the Los Angeles Times.



California forcibly sterilized people for 70 years. Survivors can now get compensation. These forced sterilizations routinely happened in California’s state-run hospitals, homes and institutions on tens of thousands of people. The state’s eugenics law — repealed in 1979 — and the subsequent sterilizations disproportionately targeted people of color and those with disabilities or mental illness. As of Jan. 1, survivors are now eligible to apply for financial reparations as part of a $7.5-million state program. Fresno Bee

California judge rules Google’s confidentiality agreements break labor law. The ruling marks the latest victory for labor advocates who have sought to force Big Tech companies to relax the stringent confidentiality policies that compel employees to stay quiet about every aspect of their jobs, even after they quit. Washington Post


Jamie Chong and her son
Jamie Chong and her son, Asher, who will soon turn 3. Asher, who has cerebral palsy and issues with his respiratory and gastrointestinal systems, is still too young to be eligible for a COVID vaccine.
(Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times)

More kids in the hospital with COVID renew fears for medically fragile children. Recent federal data show that children too young to be vaccinated were being hospitalized with COVID-19 at rates nearing those of young adults. However, they were still well below the rates for middle-aged people and seniors. The risks from COVID-19 are much more pronounced for immunocompromised or medically fragile children, including kids with cancer, lupus and other conditions. Los Angeles Times

Surfers rescued from tsunami-roiled waters after ignoring warnings to stay out of the ocean. The tsunami from a volcanic eruption near Tonga caused minimal damage along the California coast. But Saturday was a busy day for some first responders in the Bay Area. One surfer was rescued in Ocean Beach after his surfboard snapped in half about 200 yards from the shoreline. The effort required the assistance of a U.S. Coast Guard helicopter, a rescue boat and San Francisco Fire Department rescue swimmers, said a spokesman for the fire department. Los Angeles Times

Mother bears and cubs battle for survival as wildfire, drought and traffic take a heavy toll. Nearly a century after the California grizzly was hunted to extinction, black bears are being killed by motorists in record numbers. Los Angeles Times



Bay Area zero-waste stores thrive after a wave of pandemic pollution. These shops specialize in products such as nontoxic glass cleaners and foaming organic hand soap that customers can pour into their own repurposed vessels. Many customers note that so many everyday products come in plastic, from washed lettuce greens to dish soap, yet very little of that plastic is recyclable. San Francisco Chronicle

In California’s pot market, there’s a hazy line between legal and not. The state requires legal businesses to report what growers produce and ship, and it’s entered into a vast computerized tracking system far from airtight. Plants can vary widely in what they make, allowing for wiggle room in what gets reported, while there is little in on-site inspections to verify record-keeping. The system is so loose, some legal farms move as much as 90% of their product into the illicit market, one grower said. Associated Press

Free online games

Get our free daily crossword puzzle, sudoku, word search and arcade games in our new game center at


Los Angeles: partly to mostly cloudy, 74. San Diego: partly cloudy, 64. San Francisco: cloudy, 59. San Jose: cloudy, 66. Fresno: partly cloudy, 63. Sacramento: partly cloudy, 60.

Our daily news podcast

If you’re a fan of this newsletter, you’ll love our daily podcast “The Times,” hosted every weekday by columnist Gustavo Arellano, along with reporters from across our newsroom. Go beyond the headlines. Download and listen on our App, subscribe on Apple Podcasts and follow on Spotify.


Betty White would have celebrated her 100th birthday today. The late, great comedy legend loved dogs and hot dogs — just ask Pink’s Hot Dogs in Los Angeles.

Also, Justin recently asked readers for the music they listen to when they want some nostalgia in their lives. Here is a response from Robert Lentz:


‘Night Fever’ by the Bee Gees. This song always transports me back to the disco craze of the ‘70s. If Sirius plays it while driving on the 405, I can’t resist busting some John Travolta moves!

If you have a memory or story about the Golden State, share it with us. (Please keep your story to 100 words.)

Please let us know what we can do to make this newsletter more useful to you. Send comments to