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Bold as brass metal thieves disrupt rail, comms, electric

Authorities get heavy with metal thieves

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The growing threat from metal theft – and the no-nonsense response by authorities determined to stamp it out – were highlighted yesterday as jail sentences of three years apiece were handed down to two Newark men convicted of stealing 25 metres of copper cabling worth just £44.

The value of the metal involved may seem trivial, but the consequence was definitely not. Network Rail claimed this single theft led to some 36 trains being fully or partially cancelled and a further 115 delayed – at a total cost of £75,000 to the operating companies.

Train companies were still licking their wounds following the efforts of a rather more successful gang of thieves, who removed 1.28km (0.79 miles) of track – weighing over 70 tonnes – in the period leading up to Christmas last year. The track came from the disused line at Tickhill, near Doncaster: the consequences of this particular theft were said to be "vast", as Network Rail had been planning to bring the line back into use.

Separate estimates put the total cost of metal theft to Network Rail at £35m since 2006/7.

Metal thefts correlate closely with the value of metal. The price of copper reached a low of $3,000/tonne in December 2008, and metal theft fell during 2009. Since then, as the world economy has begun to recover from global recession, the price has risen steadily, reaching $8,000/tonne in October 2010. Predictably, the volume of thefts also rose, with British Transport Police logging a record number of incidents in April 2010 – and almost 2,000 incidents for the year as a whole.

On the day that a judge was jailing the Newark duo, analysts forecast that the price of copper would soon be breaking the $10,000/tonne barrier.

It is not just rail that suffers. A spokesman for Energy Networks Association (ENA) told us that cable thefts of energy transmission – for both electricity and gas – and telecomms infrastructure have grown dramatically over the past few years, reaching a new high of 4,000 incidents in 2010. The upward trend appears to be continuing.

ENA has only recently begun collating figures, so it is unable to quantify the exact cost of this crime. A typical incident can cost hundreds of thousands of pounds, netting a gain for the perpetrators that is a fraction of that.

However, the real cost lies in the risk to those involved. There have been several fatalities in the last 12 months – as well as evidence of serious injuries incurred by individuals who removed themselves from the scene before the authorities turned up. One incident in Gloucestershire last year left live power cables lying across a football pitch just as the Sunday morning team turned up for practice.

The authorities have responded in a number of ways. First, the courts are getting tougher. There may be no "average offender"; according to the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO), metal thieves come in all shapes and sizes – from organised gangs to 12-year-old opportunists. Nonetheless, the message is clear: disrupt comms, energy or rail by stealing metal, and you face a harsh jail sentence.

In parallel with this, the ACPO have been calling for greater regulation of the scrap metal industry, including registration and a move to "cashless trading". They, together with representatives from industry, are to meet next month with Government to discuss possible initiatives.

Deputy Chief Constable Paul Crowther, who leads the ACPO Conductive Metal Theft Working Group, has been demanding measures that would allow senior police officers to close down scrap metal dealers who fail to abide by industry standard working practices.

He said: "We need the powers to tackle the heart of this problem effectively, allowing us to shut down scrap metal dealers who continue to flout the law and provide a market for thieves through buying and selling stolen metal".

Describing metal theft as "a crime which really impacts on people’s everyday lives" and potentially disastrous for small businesses, he went on: "Metal theft is far from a victimless crime and can cause enormous problems for local communities and industry."

Several electricity companies are now converting their infrastructure to aluminium – but that will take time. Meanwhile, detection and capture are seen as playing a key role.

SmartWater is one such tool. The technology includes forensic trap devices, which "douse offenders in a chemically coded liquid, which will cover their skin, clothing and hair", as well "forensic coding to mark sections of trackside cable with a chemical liquid that marks the metal itself". In the latter capacity, SmartWater is now used in conjunction with a mobile based geo-positioning app, developed by Cheshire software company, Kodit Ltd.

Despite such efforts, it looks like metal prices are going to continue rising in the near future – and with it, the incentive for people to steal metal. We forecast a further increase in metal theft in 2011. ®

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