(Illustration: Shutterstock)
(Illustration: Shutterstock)

Tamil Nadu train heist: A look at famous train robberies across history

The Tamil Nadu heist isn’t the first time train robberies have baffled officials. Here’s a list of nearly perfect crimes pulled out on trains with extensive planning and a dash of innovation and a few ingenious methods.
Hindustan Times | By HT Correspondent, New Delhi
UPDATED ON AUG 10, 2016 05:01 PM IST

More than 24 hours after robbers cut through the roof of a train coach in Tamil Nadu and made away with Rs 5.75 crore, investigators are clueless.

Officials are struggling to understand how did the robbers drill one square feet hole – wide enough for one person to pass through -- when a posse of security personnel was guarding the coach booked by the Reserve Bank of India to transport soiled notes. Steel-cutters and welding torches were used to break open the coach, say investigators.

The plot was simple but daring.

Read | Great train roof robbery in Tamil Nadu nets Rs 5.75cr in soiled notes

Here’s a look back at near-perfect crimes pulled off on trains, with cunning, a bit of innovation and loads of audacity:

The great train robbery

When: 1963

Where: The UK

Who: A 15-member gang led by Bruce Reynolds, a thief and antiques dealer. Three of the gang were only known as numbers 1, 2 and 3. Their 16th accomplice, a retired train driver, remains unnamed.

It’s a plot that inspired a movie. After months of planning, the gang on August 8, 1963 stopped a Glasgow-to-London mail train at the Bridego bridge in Buckinghamshire, England. They had tampered with signals to halt the train.

Within half an hour they had loaded the cash – mostly in small bills -- in 120 bags and made off with a neat £2.6 million, which will amount to around £40 million today. No guns were used in one of the most notorious crimes of 20th century Britain. But, one of them hit the train driver with a metal bar for being uncooperative.

Most of stolen cash was never recovered. Police eventually found the robbers’ hideout at Leatherslade Farm in Buckinghamshire, which led to their arrests and conviction. Only two of the 16 robbers are alive, according to a Daily Mail report.

Legends of Wild Wild West

When: 1873

Where: Iowa, US

Who: Jesse James and gang

A famous outlaw who robbed banks and trains, Jesse James’s Iowa heist is stuff of Wild Wild West legend. He and his gang loosened a part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific railroad near Adair in Iowa and attached a rope to it, derailing the train that killed the engineer. Instead of finding gold, the gang found just $2,000 in the US Company Express safe. Disappointed, James and his men looted the passengers.

Jesse James was allegedly a Klu Klux Klan member and the gang had the KKK masks on during the robbery.

The Rondout train robbery

When: 1924

Where: Chicago

Who: “Newton Boys” -- brothers Willis, Jess and Dock and accomplice Brentwood Glasscock. The gang robbed at least 60 banks and six trains in the early 20th century.

The Texas brothers teamed up with two gangsters and postal inspector William J Fahy to steal the largest sum stolen in the US from a train -- $3 million. Tipped off by Fahy, they boarded a mail train on the Chicago, Milwaukee and St Paul railroad. They stopped the train at gunpoint near Rondout, Illinois and threw small home-made formaldehyde bombs into passenger coaches. One of the “Newton Boys” was mistakenly shot during the heist. The gang members were nabbed while trying to get medical help.

The gang boasted of never killing anyone or targeting women and children.

Wilcox train robbery

When: 1899

Where: Wyoming

Who: Four members of the Wild Bunch -- Robert LeRoy Parker (Butch Cassidy), Sundance Kid, Harvey Logan and Elzy Lay.

Butch Cassidy’s gang Wild Bunch seeped into American pop culture for being one of the most successful train robbers in the US’ history. Speckled with colourful characters, the gang planned an elaborate heist by redirecting a train run by the Union Pacific Railroad and blowing off its doors and a safe with dynamite sticks and explosives. They made way with $30,000.

File photo of the Wild Bunch. (Picture courtesy: Wikicommons)
File photo of the Wild Bunch. (Picture courtesy: Wikicommons)

Bezdany raid

When: 1908

Where: Bezdany in present day Lithuania

Who: Polish revolutionaries led by Jozef Pilsudski

Iconic Polish revolutionary Jozef Pilsudski, with the aid of several men and four women, led a train heist against the Russian rule in Poland. The conspirators allegedly stole 400,000 roubles (unconfirmed) and used the money for the freedom struggle.

File photo of former Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski (Picture courtesy: Wikicommons)
File photo of former Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski (Picture courtesy: Wikicommons)

Kakori ‘conspiracy’

When: 1925

Where: Kakori, near Lucknow

Who: Revolutionary group Hindustan Public Association, later renamed Hindustan Socialist Republican Army (HSRA). One of the revolutionaries included freedom fighter Chandrashekhar Azad.

The Kakori train robbery has a special place in India’s freedom struggle. It was not a crime – it was an audacious strike against an oppressive colonial power.

Led by Ram Prasad Bismil and Ashfaqullah Khan, a gang of revolutionaries, which included Azad, climbed on a Northern Railways train in Uttar Pradesh and took way money belonging to the British government treasury. While all the revolutionaries escaped unhurt, a passenger was killed in the gunfight with train guards.

A massive hunt was launched and several of the revolutionaries were arrested. Bismil, Khan, Roshan Singh and Rajendra Nath Lahiri were hanged in 1927.

Read | Whodunit! Cops clueless 24 hours after Tamil Nadu’s great train robbery

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