Destination Mercy: The 2020 Los Angeles (USA) Train Derailment

Max S
15 min readMar 31, 2024


The Port of Los Angeles is a combined passenger and freight harbor in the southern part of the Californian metropolis, located approximately 32km/20mi south of the downtown area between the neighborhoods of Long Beach and San Pedro right on the USA’s pacific coast.

The location of Los Angeles in the southwest of the USA.

The harbor occupies a combined land and water area of 30km²/11.6mi² and sees over 1800 ships per year (as of 2019). It shifts over 178 million metric tons of cargo per year while also handling over 600 thousand passengers along with tourism to museum ships docked within it. Despite this a 2022 report saw it and the neighboring port of Long Beach being jointly declared one of the world’s least efficient harbors. Moving the cargo to, from and in between ships is done by both road and rail, with the harbor infrastructure including 182km/113mi of rail lines for freight traffic.

One of the rail service providers working for the harbor is the Pacific Harbor Line (PHL), a private rail service provider founded in 1998, operating on a 95km/59mi network in and around the Port of Los Angeles with the longest route in their network reaching 29km/18mi. The company’s trains mostly pick up freight cars delivered to the Port of Los Angeles and Port of Long Beach by other rail service companies to distribute it through the port and vice versa. As such their operation is entirely classified as shunting operations (placing them in the category of a so-called Switching Railroad) which comes with lower safety requirements compared to regular railroad companies.

The final location of the train, just northwest of the harbor’s cruise terminal. The train departed the tracks at the buffer stop seen at the top of the image at Knoll Drive.

The Vehicles Involved

(In a premiere for this blog) one of the vehicles involved in the incident was the USNS Mercy, a former oil tanker which was converted to a hospital ship for the US Navy in 1985. It measures 273m/894ft in length at a deck-level width of 32m/106ft. It has a ship crew of 135 people who, when the ship is “activated”, are joined by a medical crew of up to 1156 people. The ship is essentially a full hospital slotted into a ship’s hull, carrying 1000 patient beds, several surgery rooms and all sorts of specialized departments from radiology and a burn center to a pharmacy and blood bank. The ship had provided aid in several military operations and after natural disasters when it pulled into the Port of Los Angeles in March 2020, being docked at the Cruise Terminal. The City of Los Angeles planned to transfer several patients from its hospitals to the ship, intending to free up on-shore capacities for patients infected during the rapidly escalating Covid-Pandemic.

USNS Mercy, photographed arriving at the Port of Los Angeles on the 27th of March 2020.

One of the locomotives used by PHL for their shunting services was PHL 21, an MPI MP20B. The locomotive, introduced in 2007, is a four-axle diesel locomotive based off the frame of retired EMD GP38 and GP40-locomotives fitted with modernized propulsion systems. Each MP20B measures 18m/59ft in length at a weight of 126 metric tons and can reach as much as 113kph/70mph, although those speeds are not seen in the harbor’s short-range shunting operations. PHL 21 was pulling a short selection of freight cars at the time of the incident, being driven by 44 years old Mister Moreno.

PHL 21, the locomotive involved in the incident, photographed in January 2020.

The Incident

Mister Moreno is driving a short freight train through the Port of Los Angeles in the afternoon of the 31st of March 2020, running on a single track dead-end branch adjacent to Knoll Drive next to the Smith Island container terminal. Knoll Drive, a small road within the harbor, loops back in a 180° turn just north of the Vincent Thomas Bridge’s western ramp, creating a “bag” in which the rail line ends at a buffer stop.

Mister Moreno’s day sees a sudden departure from regular procedures when his train comes around a right hand turn some 400m/1300ft from the end of the track. He spots the USNS Mercy towering above the water just beyond the bridge, a giant white behemoth. It is at this point that, likely, a plan forms in his head, which is put into action by Mister Moreno applying the throttle despite the buffer stop being within sight. PHL21’s engine roars up as the train picks up a bit of speed on the 200m/656ft straight section before crashing right through the buffer stop. The heavy locomotive crosses Knoll Drive, unimpressed by the guardrails, makes it across a parking lot, through another barrier, across a gravel lot underneath the bridge and finally becomes stuck on the edge of Regan Street, next to its leading freight car which became detached from it and the other cars during the derailment. The hospital ship, Mister Moreno’s intended destination, is still around 200m/656ft away. The short trip beyond the rail line saw the train narrowly miss three occupied cars, the outcome would have been far less harmless than it ended up being had it come into contact with any of them.

A TV-station published this image showing just how far Mister Moreno was from reaching the ship.


An officer of the California Highway Patrol saw the locomotive go off the rails and went over to it, arriving just as Moreno climbed out and bailed. His getaway turned out to be as successful as his attack, ending when he was stopped by the officer after a short distance. The officer soon realized that he probably hadn’t witnessed an accident as Mister Moreno felt moved to give a statement while being detained:

“You only get this chance once. The whole world is watching. I had to. People don’t know what’s going on here. Now they will. At night, they turn off the lights and don’t let anyone in. I’m going to expose this to the world. When was the last time you went to Dodgers’ stadium? We might not be able to go again.”

Mister Moreno was handed off to the Los Angeles Port Police, where, in initial questioning, he acknowledged that he “did it”, reportedly treating his deliberate derailment as a success of some sort. He said that he knew that the USNS Mercy was “not what it was claimed to be”, hinting at vaguely defined secret purposes related to the pandemic (which may or may not be real in his opinion), while also mentioning a government takeover of some variety in an unclear connection to the, in his view, questionable pandemic. He assured officers that he had acted alone and hadn’t even planned the attack ahead of time, seizing the opportunity as it presented itself to him. In his opinion the derailment, while failing to actually endanger or even reach the ship, would bring media attention so “people could see for themselves”. What exactly they were meant to see aside from a derailed freight train stranded a considerable distance from a big ship remained rather unclear.

A still from a video captured by an eyewitness, showing PHL 21 stuck on the edge of Regan Street with a path of destruction behind it.

The statements by Mister Moreno lay in stark contrast to the actual purpose of the ship, which wasn’t even there for Covid-patients but was actually there to treat non-Covid patients. If anything nefarious was going on with Covid-patients, one would assume it would occur at a location which has Covid-patients. But then again, Mister Moreno would likely say that that’s what *they* want you to think.

Back at the site firefighters were busy trying to contain a massive oil leak as the locomotive’s tanks had torn open during the derailment. Investigators recovered footage from an onboard camera, showing Mister Moreno standing in the cab in the journey’s final moments while holding a lit flare. It’s not publicly known if he intended to set the ship, the train and/or himself on fire with the flare or if, perhaps, he was just being theatrical. Either way he was held overnight before being handed off to FBI agents the next day when his charges were escalated to a federal level, seeing him charged with one count of train wrecking, a rarely-used statute carrying a maximum sentence of up to 20 years in prison, and committing a terrorist act against a mass transportation system.

The position where PHL 21 came to a rest captured on StreetView, looking towards the Cruise Terminal where the USNS Mercy was docked (red marker). The locomotive stopped on the sidewalk a few feet behind the camera.

The escalation of his charges apparently made Mister Moreno far more talkative, with court documents containing a lengthy monologue in which he stated that the USNS Mercy was part of a government conspiracy to bring “healthy ‘open-minded’ people” onto the ship and “get rid of them”, indicating that he believed infection-numbers were fabricated and/or people were being deliberately infected/killed by the government. He cited various conspiracy echo chambers as his sources, including the infamous Q-Anon movement and the X22-Report. A psychological evaluation, meanwhile, diagnosed a psychotic episode and saw him being prescribed medication along with having his “copious” caffeine intake limited.

Mister Moreno finally appeared in federal court in December 2021, initially arguing that he was unfit for sentencing on grounds of insanity. He eventually accepted a plea deal and was sentenced to three years in prison in April 2022, along with being sentenced to pay 756 thousand USD/700 thousand Euros in damages to his former employer. The court’s psychology-expert had noted that Mister Moreno had sworn off the conspiracy echo chambers he had been essentially addicted to and that he was on medication for his mental state. Those factors, in the expert’s opinion, indicated a greatly reduced risk of repetition given the centrality of the conspiracy-subculture to Mister Moreno’s actions.

Investigators work on PHL 21 a few days after the derailment.

As far as railway operations are concerned there are two factors which play a role in the incident. Firstly, Mister Moreno’s deteriorating mental state slipped through the cracks of existing employee evaluations, with neither colleagues nor superiors appearing to recognize that he was getting lost in a world of wild theories and confident half-truths (if that), while still being entrusted to move several hundred tons of steel day after day, often in even closer proximity to other people than a regular railway would see. Working as a train driver in the USA doesn’t involve undergoing any mandatory psychological evaluations, with only a few companies deciding to invest the time and money (and risk of being rejected by prospective employees) to run such evaluations even just when hiring drivers. And even then, a lot of those screenings have been summarized by employees under the term “tell them what they want to hear and get back to work”. It’s also unlikely that a train driver would seek help themselves, as any negative result from a screening, questionable or not, could see them temporarily or permanently out of work. A similar system and issue is present in aviation and was dissected and analyzed in detail by fellow Medium-author (and personal idol) Admiral Cloudberg in their article on the 2015 crash of Germanwings flight 9525 [be aware that the article deals with a suicide]. A lot of the issues and unintended structures found in the aeromedical system can also be found in similar (if weaker) forms in the rail industry, with potentially insufficient/faulty control systems making it attractive (and possible) for employees to attempt to “outmaneuver” those conducting the examinations in order to ensure continued employment.

Mister Moreno also would have most likely never sought help by himself, since echo chambers such as those he told investigators fed his supposed knowledge of ”actual truths” (read: conspiracy theories) tend to also supply supporters with ample amounts of confidence in the stories they spread. The increasing accessibility of the internet is often blamed for boosting conspiracy theories, since, suddenly, you could very easily find out that you weren’t alone with that (objectively) wild or unlikely theory you had cooked up, without having to tell it to anyone face to face. A few keystrokes and you were connected to hundreds if not thousands of people agreeing with what you were assuming, and you can’t be all wrong, right? It doesn’t matter if your family/neighbors/coworkers tell you you’re wrong, they’re just not “in the know”. They think they know right and wrong, but in reality they don’t and it’s just you and your fellow “insiders” who figured it all out.

Almost any relatively large event or topic has conspiracy theories attached to it, no matter how sparse the supposed evidence for the those theories may be. Any attempt to limit the spread of the platforms pushing conspiracy theories is also quickly spun into proof for their validity, since they’re usually opposing the official/”government-supported” information a limitation of them must be the higher entity in question trying to shut down the “actual truth” before too many people learn about it.

The Covid-pandemic in particular saw a lot of relatively popular conspiracy-theories, possibly aided by people being forced to skip usual social events and activities giving them more time on their own while under a threat they may not entirely understand. Racist/antisemitic groups also jumped on the “hype”, spreading theories blaming the pandemic on different ethnicity, nationalities or religious groups, accusing them of more or less purposely starting the pandemic. The theory also “merged” with other conspiracies, be it different entities supposedly actually controlling the world (instead of the official governments) or that the then-new 5G mobile network standard actually being some sort of weaponized radiation infecting people or controlling/killing those who were/weren’t vaccinated depending on which theory you chose to follow. This, of course, was also supported by the preexisting network of conspiracy theories about vaccinations.

Results of a 2021 survey regarding COVID-related conspiracy theories, focusing on conspiracy theories that made people reject the vaccinations.

As funny as some theories may seem from the outside, the danger they pose cannot be dismissed. Covid-related conspiracy theories alone have led, among other things, to people torching cellphone towers, blocking access to hospitals, attempting to kidnap the German health minister, assaulting people of certain ethnicities or faiths in public or poisoning themselves with supposed “actual remidies” like chlorous acid, all because they thought they knew an actual truth that was being hidden from the wider public. Not to mention countless needless infections because people decided that Covid didn’t exist at all and/or was “like a cold”. Mister Moreno’s belief in needing to fight a false narrative also could have easily ended far worse than it did. He derailed his train into a parking lot, getting it stuck after missing three cars. One doesn’t want to imagine what could have happened in a more crowded place, or if he had been at the controls of a train carrying passengers rather than containers. His decision to derail the train was, in the end, an egoistic act decided by an unstable mind out of its own control. Admiral Cloudberg’s article that I linked to earlier gives a painful example of what can result from that same basis under less mild circumstances. Mister Moreno may not have acted in suicidal intention (if he did isn’t 100% clear), but it remains a case of a person with a questionable mental state acting on an egoistic, irrational motivation. He may not have been in objective control of the train from the moment he chose to derail the train, but he certainly no longer was in control once the train became too fast to stop ahead of the end of the track. He wanted to get to the ship, but he had no control over the train’s direction or what was moving around the train.

The location where PHL 21 left the tracks (green), where it became stuck (yellow) and where Mister Moreno intended for it to end up (red, approximation).

One measure that railways have against drivers acting in malicious intent are automatic train control systems (ATC), which were the second railway operations-related factor that played a role in this incident. ATC is a trackside system which can monitor train positions, speeds and directions and autonomously ensure that trains obey speed limits and stay at a safe distance from each other and dead ends. If a train is found to be in violation of the parameters programmed into the system it will be forced to a stop regardless of the driver’s inputs. For example, a train being accelerated through a red signal by a driver intending to cause a collision would screech to a stop even with the throttle lever being held at “full throttle” as the ATC can overrule the driver’s inputs.

However, such systems are rarely used during shunting (and may be completely absent from rail systems like that at the Port of Los Angeles) as shunting obviously involves trains getting “too close”. In fact, existing train control systems have been disabled by negligent train drivers in past accidents by setting the control system to shunting mode. An ATC-system on the branch line used by Mister Moreno could theoretically have prevented the locomotive from accelerating through the end of the rail line, but since most movements there occur at low speed and require both close proximities between trains and to the buffer stop the cost of installing and maintaining such a system on such a specialized rail line stood in no reasonable relation to the chance of an incident like the one caused by Mister Moreno, especially considering that the line was dealing exclusively with small freight trains and around very limited amounts of people meaning in most scenarios the number of directly endangered people was 1. Switch the surroundings from a harbor to an urban area and things will look drastically different. A lot of railroads in the USA replace or expand upon ATC-systems by having two-man locomotive crews, with one driver observing the other’s actions and being meant to take over if needed. But this, too, wouldn’t have been a reasonable expectation for the harbor railroad.

The switch to select shunting mode (“Verschub”) or standard operational mode (“Betrieb”) on a locomotive which crashed in Hungary in 2007 after a negligent driver used shunting mode to disable the ATC-system.

So with all that said, what remains to be learned from the incident at the Port of Los Angeles? The lessons to be learned can be condensed into two points:

  • Firstly, the importance of efficient, proper and repeated mental health screenings is easy to be underestimated as, in contrast to physical ailments, it can be much harder to notice when someone is becoming unfit for their job’s responsibilities. Times of crisis like the pandemic create an especially strong draw to questionable theories and beliefs which, if they go unchecked, can have catastrophic outcomes. Sure, Mister Moreno got his train stuck in a gravel lot and went to jail while the news had something to talk about for a day or two, but that doesn’t mean that the next Mister Moreno would fail in a similarly harmless way. A train might be harder to use in a malicious way compared to a plane or road vehicle, especially when the vehicle itself is meant to become the weapon, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be done. And even if the pandemic that fueled that particular conspiracy theory category may faded as of early 2024, there are still plenty of conspiracy echo chambers that can and have driven people to irrational behaviors, in some cases leading to dangerous and/or violent behavior, and the stream of new topics isn’t easing up. As of this writing (March 2024) it’s just a few days since a bridge collapsed in Baltimore, USA, after being rammed by a container ship. Within hours, people claimed it had been brought down via explosives and/or that the ship had been rammed into the bridge on purpose on the orders of a variety of supposed suspects. And the moment there were people online making claims there were people agreeing.
  • Secondly, in rail operations, it shouldn’t be forgotten that the human factor can cause issues in three different ways. There’s legitimate error, making an unintended mistake. Then there’s negligence, which is already worse. And lastly, there’s malice. A train driver who wants to cause harm (to themselves and/or others) and destruction is the hardest risk to prepare against, and any possible solution is expensive compared to the chance of an incident. A second driver may manage to take control from a malicious driver, but he might as well be “in on it” or be incapacitated if the suspect is more dedicated to their motivation. ATC can also slow/stop a train regardless of the driver’s input, but the systems don’t permanently disable the train. It may work to slow/stop a train intended to overrun a buffer stop, but in general a train stopped by ATC can be put back in motion within a few minutes at most. This brings the discussion back to the prior point, that the most capable way of stopping trains driven by malicious drivers is to spot those drivers before they can weaponize a train for whichever reason.

The most popular conspiracy theory in the USA remains “Qanon”, which is focused around secret forces supposedly working to undermine (former) President Trump’s presidency, somehting which one fifth of US citizens believe. A 2022 study found that the US needs “saving” by resorting to violence, while 16% believe that the government, media and financial system are controlled by secret group of satan-worshiping cannibalistic pedophiles (that’s a row of words I didn’t expect to write on this blog) who conspired against Donald Trump. The theory alone, which Mister Mureno believed in and which is expected to receive an influx of followers in the election year and possibly the elections aftermath, has been directly linked to several violent deaths and also acted as an “entrance” into the world of conspiracies for a lot of people.

Police cars sit outside a house in fall 2022 after the resident opened fire on his family and then police after being rejected in an argument over Qanon-conspiracies.


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Max S

Train crash reports and analysis, published weekly.