Cable theft surge prompts railways to seek EU action

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European railway operators are pressing for an EU-wide response to the rising number of cable thefts, with desperate rail companies deploying helicopter patrols and sprinkling infrastructure with artificial DNA to deter crime.

Authorities at Infrabel, the Belgian rail infrastructure company, cite the theft of copper cables that convey electric current to locomotives as a frequent cause of delays on its regional and international lines, while NetworkRail in Britain says metal thieves cost the infrastructure company £19 million, or €23.7 million, per year.

In Greece, the cash-strapped national rail company says cable thefts cost €12 million in recent years. Germany’s state rail company reported that metal theft grew 50% from 2010 to 2011.

Rail operators and infrastructure companies are pressing the EU for action to address what authorities blame on small-time thieves as well as organised crime operations that ship metal scrap to smelters outside Europe.

Besides electricity and signalling cables used on rail corridors, the telecommunications industry has also reported rising thefts of copper cables, while rail authorities also say thieves are dismantling safety fences and selling the metal for scrap.

Cable theft is a “very serious issue” with railways, said Lucy Straker, project officer for the EU-financed Pol-PRIMETT parternship on metal theft, a group that includes rail system representatives and police agencies.

Rising copper and metals prices have spurred the illicit market. The World Bank’s commodity forecast shows copper prices rose from $1,813 per metric tonne in 2000 to $8,828 in 2011.

Although there is no evidence that Europe’s economic slowdown has driven the trade, “there is the coincidence of rising copper prices and unemployment levels at a time of growing criminal activity,” Straker said by telephone from Sheffield, England.

Seeking European action

Rail officials have been complaining for months about growing incidents of cable theft. On 25 October, the nighttime removal of railway cable on a major commuter line between the southwestern Belgian town of Mons and Brussels disrupted trains for hours while Infrabel workers replaced stolen cabling.

Infrabel authorities, citing the explosion of such incidents, called for “a response a the European level,” the Belgian news agency Belga reported.

Responding to complaints from across Europe, the European Rail Infrastructure Managers group has urged the European Commission to take action. It is calling for an EU standard on the licensing of scrap metal dealers and the introduction of an EU-wide system of cashless payments for scrap metal sales.

European Commission officials said on Monday (29 October) that so far no such proposals are in the EU executive’s work plan for 2013.

Rail systems have employed a variety of measures to deter thieves. Deutsche Bahn, Germany’s state railway, is using artificial DNA to mark its infrastructure to make recovered goods easier to trace. In July, Deutsche Bahn joined with leading telecommunications and energy companies to established an association of German metal traders so that scrap could be more closely monitored.

Helicopter patrols

France’s SNCF has used helicopters to patrol railway lines to deter criminals. Courts in France and the United Kingdom recently convicted individuals involved in cable thefts, though the authorities acknowledged that a larger problem of organised crime remains.

Straker, of the Pol-PRIMETT parternship, says involvement in the organisation has grown since it was started in 2010. Britain, Bulgaria, France, Greece, Italy, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Spain and Sweden are participating.

The partnership is studying models for potential EU-wide standards to curb metal theft, Straker said. France has adopted a law requiring anyone selling scrap to register, while Portugal and the United Kingdom bar cash payments for metal scrap.

A spokesman for Europol said EU member states have not so far asked the European police agency to coordinate investigations into cable and other metals thefts. Railpol, the European network of railway police agencies, has published a booklet designed to help law enforcement agencies identify copper cables used in 15 participating countries.

Stealing cables – especially overhead copper wires – is an extremely dangerous undertaking. The overhead electric wires carry up to 25,000 volts of electricity, and several deaths have been reported in recent years involving people being electrocuted or burned during theft attempts.

Two decades into the European single market, getting people or goods from one part of the European Union to another on trains remains a challenge – despite rail's potential in reducing traffic pollution and congestion. The European Commission is considering new ways to reach the end station of a common railway market.

The European Commission is working on its fourth Railway Package since 2001 with the aim to further liberalise networks, citing rail’s low market shares of about 7% for freight and 12% for passenger services.

But major hurdles remain in building a common European rail system. Technological differences, regulatory barriers, underinvestment and debates over how best to manage infrastructure and equipment contribute to the slow pace of change in some countries.

Progress in infrastructure quality and service has also been hampered by a more perverse problem: theft and vandalism. Reports show that tough economic times and high metals prices have led to the theft of rail and electrical cabling to be resold as scrap.

NetworkRail, the British infrastructure manager, has called theft of metal “a growing problem. Thieves are targeting signalling cables, overhead power lines and even metal fences to sell for scrap.”

>> Read our LinksDossier on Europe's rails.

  • 20 Nov.: Pol-PRIMETT partners to meet in Valencia, Spain

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