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Train robbery, a crime that conjures images of the Old West, is relatively rare in modern times. According to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics, rail accounts for less than 1% of all transportation-related thefts, with highway cargo theft being far more prevalent. In 2020, the FBI reported only 180 incidents of robbery on railways, a fraction compared to other crime venues.
Today's train robberies, when they occur, tend to be focused on freight rather than passengers, with thieves targeting valuable goods such as electronics or pharmaceuticals. Enhanced security measures, surveillance technology, and law enforcement tactics have made the classic train heist largely a relic of the past, though the romance of the crime lives on in popular culture and folklore.
Train robberies are not very common in modern times. In today’s world, an average person is far more likely to be a victim of a mugging, pick pocketing, or burglary than a train robbery. Train robbery crimes were much more common in the 1800s and even in the early-to-mid 1900s than they are now. Like highwaymen, train robbers are more likely to be seen in historical fiction novels and history books than on the daily television news.
Train robbery was more common in the Old American West than it is today. Train robberies were especially prevalent in what was referred to as Indian Territory during the period that followed the American Civil War. Often, train robbers of this period would switch a train to a different track in order to send it in the direction of the waiting thieves; the thieves would then threaten the train engineer with guns and force him to uncouple passenger cars so they could get the mail car and the car that contained the safe alone for the robbery. In many cases, they were content with robbing a train’s mail car and safe, but they did sometimes rob the passengers as well.
One of the most famous train robberies in US history was the 1899 robbery of the Union Pacific Overland Flyer No. 1 train. Six train robbers managed to make off with loot the train company claimed was worth more than $50,000 US dollars (USD). This robbery occurred when the robbers tricked the engineer into stopping the train and then boarded it. They then used dynamite to blow up a bridge the train went over and more dynamite to gain entry to the train’s mail car, express car, and safe.
The United States was not the only country to deal with train robberies. Another of the most famous robberies occurred in India in 1925. This robbery was planned by members of the Hindustan Republican Association in an effort to raise money for a revolution against Britain. The robbers engineered the stopping of a Northern Railway train and were able to subdue a guard. They then proceeded to steal British Government Treasury money bags, but did not rob the Indian passengers.
Another famous train robbery, dubbed the Great Train Robbery, occurred in England in 1963. To rob this train, bandits rigged a train signal to be red when it should have been green. When the train stopped and one of the crew members disembarked, the bandits boarded the train and managed to steal a large sum of money. These robbers cut area phone lines and used decoy vehicles to mislead any possible witnesses.