Cable Theft. Like the proverbial bad penny, it’s a subject that keeps cropping up, although the monetary value concerned is somewhat higher. The continuing menace of cable theft from the national rail network, the London Underground and other metro systems shows no sign of abating – quite the reverse in fact.

Issue 64 (February 2010) of the rail engineer reported on new initiatives intended to curb the theft of lineside cabling. Two years on and the problem has increased, despite Network Rail and the British Transport Police (BTP) allocating huge resources to tackle the problem.

Network Rail’s latest half-yearly results include a telling comment: “Comparing the six months under review to the same period in 2010, 92.8% of trains ran on time compared to 93.5% last year. Performance has been adversely impacted by increasing levels of cable theft.”

The direct cost to Network Rail over the past three years has been £43 million, of which about two thirds is compensation payments to train operating companies. It’s estimated that four million passenger journeys a year are affected.


BTP figures show a seven-fold increase in cable thefts and related incidents on London Underground and a 350% rise across the rail network as a whole during the last five years. The increased price of refined copper (to a peak of £6000 per tonne in February 2011) is a significant factor in the general rise of cable theft incidents.

Scrap insulated cable has about a quarter of that value, but there is nevertheless a startling correlation between the level of cable theft and the price of copper. A drop in the price of scrap metal during 2009 saw a reduction in railway cable thefts, but the price has risen over the past two years, and so has the incidence of theft.

In the current financial year, by November 2011, there had been 675 incidents causing 284,556 delay minutes, with £10,088,206 having been paid out in compensation.

Depressing figures indeed and the problem is by no means restricted to rail. Cable and metals theft generally is estimated to cost the national economy upwards of £770 million per year.


Cable theft has become one of the most serious problems affecting railway operations. The crimes range between the audacious and the reckless; from organised and well planned operations to acts of downright stupidity. All are hugely disruptive.

Andy Trotter, BTP chief constable, has said: “Cable theft is a spectrum of crimes – at one end is the opportunist who steals a few metres to make some quick cash, at the other there are links to organised crime.” For example, a small amount of cabling stolen last October from the lineside at Crossgates near Leeds was valued at just £140, but its loss affected 160 services, caused 2,955 delay minutes and cost Network Rail around £46,450.

The following month, and at the other end of the scale, more than 1,000 metres of overhead power cabling was stolen from Silver Street near Broxbourne. As the cable, energised at 25kV, was brought down it started localised fires, extensively damaged the lineside cabling and severely disrupted the signalling system.

The damage took two days to correct and the cost was estimated at £100,000. The thieves not only put themselves in grave danger, but also presented a safety risk to the engineers who had to deal with the ensuing chaos.

Fighting back

These crimes are committed because the high price of copper makes it seem worth all the risks, which include stiff sentencing if caught. So what can be done?

Tagging products such as SmartWater can be very effective. This liquid contains uniquely assigned chemical traces that can be used to identify stolen property, and indeed the thieves, to specific locations and to identify scrap yards that are accepting stolen cable.

SmartWater, which is virtually impossible to remove and can withstand burning, provides the police with irrefutable proof of ownership. Forensic trap devices are also in use to mark offenders’ skin, hair and clothes and thereby associate them directly with the crime scene.

Since the deployment of SmartWater in the Nuneaton area of the West Coast Main Line during November 2010, there has been a 21% reduction in cable theft incidents, contributing to a 35% reduction in delay minutes on the route.

RedWeb’s Advanced Molecular Taggent Technology (AMTT) provides another innovation in forensic tagging which has recently been used with success in the Sunderland area. Each batch of taggent has a uniquely encrypted molecular signature that is registered to an individual user and location.

RedWeb’s Molecular Taggent contains a red dye which remains on the skin and clothing for several days, plus an indelible dye which can only be seen under UV light. Again, once the Molecular Taggent trace has been swabbed and tested, the signature can be linked back to the crime scene. RedWeb’s Molecular Taggent Technology is also available as an invisible covert solution, without the coloured dye.

To deter theft, Network Rail is now making more use of cabling that contains tracers throughout its composition – the so-called Spanish Cable. On new signalling schemes Network Rail has also invested in deeply buried cable routes (see the rail engineer issues 75 and 81 – January and July 2011). These measures have been very successful, as has steel banding, which makes it difficult to remove cables from lineside troughing.

Network Rail is also experimenting with alternative conductor materials such as aluminium, and looking at increasing the usage of fibre optic cabling, which has no scrap value. CCTV systems (including ballast cams) have proved useful. Other anti-theft measures, such as trembler devices and even the use of helicopters with “spy in the sky” equipment have been effective too. Network Rail spends £2 million each year on these mitigation methods.

In addition it has funded extra BTP officers and has used private security firms to patrol cable theft hotspots and construction sites. In partnership with the BTP, it has also undertaken a scrap dealer education programme.

Revised legislation

All of this is very well, but as Dyan Crowther, Director of Operational Services at Network Rail, points out: “To an extent our actions can help us manage the crimes but, despite our efforts, they continue to increase. We believe that the only way to significantly reduce metal crime is to take away the illegal market and that more robust legislation and police powers are needed to achieve that.”

Within the rail industry, legislative change is widely considered to be of key importance. At present, under the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 1964, the requirements are merely that a dealer must be registered by a local authority, that a dealer must keep accurate recordings of dealings and that a dealer must not acquire scrap metal from a person under the age of 16. Significantly, there is at present no requirement for a seller to prove his identity. Cash transactions are the norm, so there is virtually no traceability on scrap metals and this allows corrupt practices to take place.

Things at last look set to change. On 8 November 2011 the House of Commons Transport Committee took evidence on railway cable theft. Evidence was provided by Dyan Crowther of Network Rail; Michael Roberts, Chief Executive of the Association of Train Operating Companies; Ian Hetherington, Director General of the British Metals Recycling Association and by Paul Crowther the Deputy Chief Constable of the British Transport Police.

Dyan Crowther stated: “There isn’t one silver bullet that will solve cable theft on the network. What we are now looking at is to attack the supply chain at source and put some focus in terms of where the thieves dispose of the metal and make that a lot more difficult for them.” Both she and Michael Roberts sought regulatory action to complement the ongoing operational work and security initiatives undertaken by Network Rail and the BTP. Paul Crowther highlighted a need for greater Police powers, citing the 1964 Act as “Steptoe and Son legislation which hasn’t kept pace with current methods.”

Ian Hetherington stated that the British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA) would also like to see regulatory reform with a “dismantling of the Scrap Metal Dealers Act and those powers vested elsewhere and powers of identification to be embedded nationally.” He qualified this by saying that a tightening of the regulations needed to be preceded by a change in enforcement practice. “We do not want voluntary arrangements. We want enforceable, tight, sensible laws”, he continued. “It is truly bizarre to find that the police cannot, as of right, enter a yard that is operating illegally in this trade.”

A multi-point plan was put forward that included:

• A tougher licensing regime to replace the present registration system, with clear requirements upon the dealer to take steps to reduce the risk of purchasing stolen materials;

• Increased Police powers to access, search and investigate all premises owned and operated by a scrap metal dealer;

• Measures to restrict trade in scrap metals to cashless payments;

• A requirement for dealers to obtain positive proof of identity of those selling scrap metals;

• Increased powers of closure of rogue scrap dealers;

• Use of approved dealers for the receipt of legitimate scrap cabling from the rail industry;

• A requirement for dealers to keep metal in the form in which it is received for 96 hours.

Further evidence was presented to the Commons Transport Committee on 29 November by Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Transport. Again, the need for changes to the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act was highlighted. There was recognition, however, that any amendments should be effective and should not penalise legitimate metal recycling businesses, as could be the case with the enforcement of cashless transactions within a traditionally cash-based trade.

Norman Baker responded that he did not think business was well served by the present arrangements. “Every single incident on the railway – there were 995 last year on the network – is causing major disruption to passengers and business. Doing nothing, in my view, does not help business.”

Answering fears that the proposed changes could merely drive illegal scrap trading underground he said: “We have to make sure that we do not simply move the problem. Part of what we are doing, if we did take action on the 1964 Act, is to look at what the criminal would do. Where would the criminal take his copper?” He then continued: “My honest belief is that the most significant way of dealing with this issue is to shut down the [illegal] supply chain rather than trying to catch people afterwards and penalise them. There is a disincentive to steal if an outlet cannot be found, and we should concentrate on that.”

Meanwhile, as the law is being reviewed, the BTP continues to proactively target offenders and rogue scrap dealers. There are about 110 officers working full time on metal theft counter measures. Their aim is to make cable and metals increasingly difficult to steal and to reduce the attractiveness of these items to metal dealers. They are fully supported in this by Network Rail and by local police forces. The harder it becomes for thieves to steal cabling and dispose of it, the greater is the risk of them being caught and prosecuted.

Authorised dealing

As it stands, the supply chain can be very convoluted with dealers selling to other dealers in pyramid fashion. Once stolen materials have entered into this chain there is little chance of identification and they can easily become mixed with legitimately sourced materials.

The Police are powerless to act unless the scrap can be proven to be stolen. As we have seen, chemical tagging can help and Network Rail has recently implemented a mandatory policy for the disposal of redundant cabling, similar to that operated by BT and other utilities.

The Network Rail disposal route is through the National Delivery Service (NDS) and its appointed metal recycler. In the case of disposal of surplus cable that belongs to a contractor working on the rail network, a contractor declaration and a cable disposal Movement and Receipt Log is completed.

Trial scheme

Whilst Network Rail and the BTP work hard to deter thieves and keep the network running, it has become clear that they need back up. Tougher sentencing for cable thieves in the courts and additional powers for the police to tackle rogue scrap dealers would help, but the real way to significantly reduce metal crime is to take away the illegal market.

To that end, progressive changes to the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act are expected in due course. In addition, on 15th December, Lord Faulkner proposed an amendment to the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill, which would make cash transactions for scrap metal sales illegal.

Pre-empting this, three police forces in North East England, a hot spot for metals theft, are now trialling a scheme under which scrap sellers must prove their identity. Operation Tornado, spearheaded by the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), the Home Office, British Metals Recycling Association (BMRA), BTP and Northumbria, Durham and Cleveland Police, came into effect on 3 January.

It aims to make it easier for sellers of stolen metal to be traced. The trial will last for six months, but there is an option to extend it and to introduce it to other regions. For the four million rail passengers who are likely to be affected by cable theft this year, this is good news indeed.