Although the rail industry has always suffered from some level of cable theft, this has been negligible in comparison to the huge percentage increase in this malicious crime over the last five or so years. Having initially been isolated to Yorkshire and the North East, cable theft has spread to the point where it is now a national epidemic. So far this financial year the cost of compensation paid out by Network Rail to train and freight operators for not being able to run their services stands at £10 million – a figure that looks likely to eclipse the £12 million total cost last year.
“Whilst the replacement cable has a cost, as well as the staff hours required to tackle this issue, the biggest cost to Network Rail is this compensation figure,” describes Rachel Lowe, media relations manager at Network Rail. “Hidden within that number is all the delayed journeys and the inconvenience to passengers, as well as vital freight deliveries, that come from the deliberate action of thieves.”
The reality is that the actual value of the cable means that the returns for the thieves are quite low, despite the huge cost to the industry. Whilst this meant that initially thieves were regularly getting non custodial sentences judged by the value of what
was taken, today courts are handing down more severe sentences having factored in the wider impact.Getting back online
Primarily it is the power and signalling cables which are targeted, and the challenge therein lies in getting the system back up and running from locating the affected area of the route, identifying the type of cable required and getting it to site, to ensuring it is fully connected and tested before going back online. “This doesn’t mean that trains are sat for hours though,” explains Rachel. “If we can bypass the signalling system whilst we are affecting the repair we will do so, otherwise we will put in temporary block working, which is much slower but is safe. This then means that our personnel have to work line side whilst trains are moving so it’s a massive strain on the people working on the railway, as well as an inconvenience to passengers and an issue for freight.”Central strategy
Historically it is the London North Eastern (LNE) route that has been the worst hit and continues to have the most incidents numbering around 340 so far this year, whilst the next closest is London North Western (LNW) with 119 incidents. However the issue of cable theft has become such a drain on the rail industry’s resources across Britain that it is now being tackled on a central basis through a national steering group headed up by director operational services at Network Rail Dyan Crowther, which also includes the Association of Train Operating Companies (ATOC).
“This thinking then feeds into a working group with representatives from each of the UK’s routes, that can then liaise with their own train operating companies (TOCs), freight operators, BTP and contacts on a local basis. Of course different bits of these solutions will be relevant in different areas, but these local tactics are underpinned by a cohesive way of working,” clarifies Rachel. “Also closely involved in this work is British Telecom (BT), because we know that if we tighten up railway security in one particular geographical area, the thieves are likely to target BT’s assets and vice versa. Therefore sharing information and good practice has been really useful.”Tackling the issue
Much of the action taken against cable theft is based upon smarter monitoring and detection, which can either deter thieves all together or facilitate the BTP in apprehending them before the damage is done. As such the schemes currently being implemented by Network Rail range from the simple bodies on the ground with extra funded BTP officers, dedicated cable response staff and pro-active mitigation staff, to more technical systems such as CCTV. This not only means standard cameras, but also motion-sensor equipment in key hotspot areas, which send the control room an image of anything moving line side.
In protecting the cable itself, Rachel highlights some of the techniques being employed: “We are using a new type of cable, which unfortunately still has to be copper, but is armoured and easily identifiable as railway cable as it’s stamped Network Rail so we are using that in resignalling jobs. We are then securing this in the troughing better, disguising it and burying, so really trying all possible solutions. By no means are we tackling this in isolation – we work with BT and all other essential infrastructure providers, as well as running an online innovations portal that invites suggestions from anyone.”Legislative support
However these internal measures can only go so far, without underpinning support from the Government, particularly with regards to the 1964 Scrap yard Act. “BTP can do everything they can to target the thieves themselves but if the scrap market is still as open and free as it is today with thousands of scrap metal traders, not all of which are registered, there is only so much we can do to stem the tide,” explains Rachel.
“In this respect we have also had to put our own processes in order with a new policy that any internal scrap from projects like resignalling has to be collected by our National Delivery Service (NDS) which will then only use approved dealers to dispose of it. Therefore any other dealers who have our cable have probably come by it through means that are not necessarily legitimate,” she continues.
Clearly this is a major issue for the industry, and economy as a whole, and recent discussions at a meeting of the Transport Select Committee in Westminster have served to highlight this. Whilst the Chancellor’s pledge of £5 million for a metal theft police task force is welcomed, the general industry consensus remains that in order for real progress to be made the actions of Network Rail need to be backed up by a shift in scrap yard legislation and ease of supply. In the meantime Network Rail is committed to continuing to tackle this issue in ever more innovative and intelligent ways: “In partnership with the British Metals Recycling Association a new trial is being launched from January in certain areas of the north east that prevents individuals from selling scrap without proof of ID. It is a voluntary scheme, but we believe this will be very useful to see whether this type of thinking can have an impact on cable theft levels in this contained area,” concludes Rachel.
Cable Theft – Network Rail
Tel: +44 (0) 845 711 4141