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Recently, a California man was federally charged with "Train Wrecking" over an incident at the Port of Los Angeles1. I admit I was surprised that train wrecking is specifically a federal crime, since the act of intentionally derailing a train presumably runs afoul of various other federal (and state) laws. I'm curious if anyone knows the history of how this came to be part of US law and if there have been others charged with this crime before

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  • I think this is 18 USC 1992. There are some citations in the Notes tab, some of which seem to be to acts of Congress that amended this law, but I haven't checked them. I would guess that this law is approximately as old as trains themselves. – Nate Eldredge Apr 4 '20 at 17:33
  • @NateEldredge The legislative history on that page only dates back to 2006, when the old 1992 ("train wrecking") was replaced with the new and largely similar one ("terrorism directed at trains"). – cpast Apr 4 '20 at 21:11
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The law was first promulgated on June 8, 1940

By the 76th Congress. The original text is here.

It doesn’t seem to be a particularly important piece of legislation and I can find commentary on it and I’m not going to read the debates - if you do, please get back to us. Two points to note, it was passed at a time when most of the rest of the world was at war and the US was quietly preparing to be at war and it seems to be intended to fill a gap in state law since conviction under state law is a defence under Federal.

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  • How is conviction under state law a defense under federal law? – George White Apr 4 '20 at 23:01
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    @GeorgeWhite: Because Congress wrote the law that way (see the text), presumably with the goal of giving state courts "priority" in trying such offenses. It's not the case for most other crimes, and even for this law, the provision has since been removed. – Nate Eldredge Apr 7 '20 at 2:19
  • thanks - I misunderstood that you were making a blanket statement that did not seem right. – George White Apr 7 '20 at 3:14
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Thanks for your answer, Dale. Based on your info I was able to track it down in the House congressional record. Surprisingly, the bill seemed to have nothing to do with the war. The reason for the bill was stated as:

This bill was requested by States which had experienced difficulty, by reason of the rapidity with which fugitives can cross State lines, in arresting such fugitives from justice. The Federal Government may reach them in Galveston, Los Angeles, or anywhere else, and bring them back to the jurisdiction where the crime was committed.

(This was in response to a question along the lines of 'Isn't wrecking a train covered by state laws already?')

A bit more about the thinking behind the law:

Mr. VAN ZANDT. Possibly this is a vehicle for the F. B. I. to employ in cases where trains have been wrecked such as in Nevada a few months ago?

Mr. HOBBS. Yes, sir.

[...]

Mr. KERR. It just simply gives the Federal Government concurrent jurisdiction with the States in matters of this kind?

Mr. HOBBS. It will enable the Federal Government to aid the States in bringing criminals, who have willfully wrecked trains engaged in interstate commerce, to justice.

Mr. Van Zandt's reference to a train wreck in Nevada is probably referring the 1939 City of San Francisco derailment. It killed 24 people and was never solved, though sabotage was strongly suspected. The investigation was seen by some at the time as trying to cover up facts that might look bad for the railroad (somebody with railroad knowledge seemed like the likely culprit, but the investigation focused solely on transients)123

I think it would be fair to say that this law was an attempt to improve the quality of investigation into train sabotage, and to involve an agency with national reach (in those days states weren't as cooperative as they are now and suspects who left the state where they'd committed a crime were often never apprehended)

See: PROCEEDINGS AND DEBATES OF THE 76th CONGRESS THIRD SESSION VOLUME 86-PART 6 MAY 9, 1940, TO MAY 27, 1940, page 6440

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