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Debris 'as far as the eye can see' along Los Angeles train tracks following thefts

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

We have heard lots of explanations for lost packages during this pandemic from backed-up ports, other supply chain disruptions to an overwhelmed Postal Service. It turns out some of those packages might simply have been stolen way before they got to any post office.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAIN RATTLING)

KELLY: Photojournalist John Schreiber went to a section of the Union Pacific train line east of downtown Los Angeles and found thousands of empty boxes and packages littering the tracks.

JOHN SCHREIBER: Unopened COVID rapid tests. We even have fishing lures.

KELLY: Union Pacific told NPR that over the past year, they have seen rail thefts increased by 160% in Los Angeles County, and they estimate more than 100 related arrests. Well, John Schreiber documented videos of the scene on Twitter and for CBS Los Angeles. He's here now. Hey there.

SCHREIBER: Hi.

KELLY: Paint a little bit more of a picture of what exactly this looks like when you show up and cast your eyes along these train tracks.

SCHREIBER: Well, you know, I started from a kind of elevated position up on a bridge, looking down on the tracks. And from there, it just kind of looked like a garbage dump with train tracks going through it. Or, you know, I'm from the Midwest, so I'm used to seeing tornadoes. It looked like a tornado had hit, like, a warehouse and just spewed debris all over the place. But it wasn't until I kind of walked down to the track level that I realized that everything I was looking at were packages destined for someone's front doorstep.

KELLY: We heard you describe the unused COVID tests. What other kind of things did you find?

SCHREIBER: Anything and everything that you get through the mail or that you've ordered online was down there. I mean, you kind of looked into the the heap of trash, and you started seeing these familiar logos like the Amazon smile or the REI logo or, you know, the Macy's department store logo. There was also bulk stuff like, you know, boxes of popcorn and pallets of toilet paper. And so it wasn't all just, you know, online ordering.

So, you know, some of it probably came from the ports of LA and Long Beach, which is south of all of this. And that's where, you know, 40% of all the goods in the country come through. But I think at least what I was told from law enforcement was the valuable stuff that they really look for - you know, a lot of these packages destined for people's houses because that could have anything from a bottle of shampoo, or it might have something really expensive, like a computer.

KELLY: Yeah. And just to give me a little bit more sense of scale, it sounds like we're not talking a few packages. We're talking many packages. Like, how many packages?

SCHREIBER: I would say it was thousands. It was as far as the eye could see. Where I was standing, it stretched for at least four to five blocks.

KELLY: Oh, wow. Now, I should note Union Pacific told us they're working on this. They have added staff. They've tried to ramp up their tech to make their trains more secure. Did you see any evidence of that? What are you seeing when you actually look in terms of the security measures that they're taking?

SCHREIBER: I mean, I could just speak for the time I was there. I saw - I did see one Union Pacific police officer chasing two people off the tracks. And, you know, it's important to note that the Union Pacific - they have their own police force. So, you know, they are responsible for patrolling their tracks.

KELLY: Yeah. I will say I've never seen anything like the images that you were posting on your Twitter feed and elsewhere. It's just this ocean of raided packages. And you have to sit and stare at it and realize this is in one of the biggest, richest cities in America. I mean, it made me wonder, is part of what's going on here just that - from COVID to unemployment, so many challenges, so many people feeling desperate? Did police or anyone you talk to tap into that?

SCHREIBER: Yeah. Everybody's just kind of scratching their heads as to why it's happening. But I can imagine. You know, there's a lot of people hurting right now, and it could be part of it. But, you know, I haven't got any exact straight answer as why.

KELLY: We've been speaking with photojournalist John Schreiber of CBS Los Angeles. Thanks for your reporting. Thank you for coming and sharing it with us.

SCHREIBER: Yeah, thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.
Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Justine Kenin