Cracking down on metal theft on the railways

Cases of metal theft on the railways are on the rise in the UK, causing over 60,000 minutes of delays and millions of pounds worth of damage in 2018. As fears over the involvement of criminal organisations grow, Adele Berti asks: what changes need to be put in place to stop this issue?

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the past year, the UK has witnessed a steep rise in live and non-live cable theft from the railways.

Figures are particularly disturbing in England and Wales where, in the year ending March 2018, nearly half of metal theft offences were infrastructure-related.

On a wider scale, recent British Transport Police (BTP) figures revealed an 85% increase in live cable thefts across the UK railway network between 2017 and 2018.

Non-live cable theft rose as well, though at a slightly slower pace, with cases growing from 172 in 2016-17 to 265 in 2017-18.

But it gets worse, with trespass-related disruption witnessing a sharp increase during the same year, and now currently accounting for 43% of overall disruption on the railways (compared to 38% in the previous year).

Thieves are still very attracted to metal because of its buoyant pricing

Factors driving metal theft 

According to James Kelly, CEO of the British Metals Recycling Association, such a substantial rise is due to two main factors, namely the price of metal and poor enforcement of regulations and the law.

“Thieves are still very attracted to metal because of its buoyant pricing, and they know that the enforcement of regulations and the law are down,” he says. “Resources are depleted and there just isn't the effort that there used to be in tackling it.”

In particular, he adds, local authorities and police forces do not receive enough financial support to pursue thieves, with the “Environment Agency being less interested in local authorities, which are not able to devote the task force focus that they were a few years ago.”

Echoing his words, Tom Acland, managing director of VPS Security Services ­– a UK company offering a range of security, management and maintenance services for construction and infrastructure projects – further blames the situation on the long-outdated Scrap Metal Dealers Act (SMDA), which was introduced in 2013.

“When the SMDA came into force in 2013, there was a huge number of reported metal theft crimes occurring that year,” he says.

Banning cash transactions and giving local police the authority to inspect merchant dealers’ premises, in the first few years of its implementation, the act was a huge success.

Reported cases of live metal theft dropped from 293 in 2013-14 to 194 the following year and 85 between 2016 and 2017.

“When that act was implemented, its impact was of great significance and immediate,” says Acland. “However, the government moved on and [it was assumed] that the problem had been solved because of this dramatic drop in cable thefts.”

“But that’s not the case. The impact of the SMDA has waned and the value of the metals being stolen has increased significantly.”

Image: Tunnels | Portland Communications

Passenger and thieves’ safety is on the line

Despite a substantial decline between 2013 and 2017, facts don’t lie, and the British railways now have to deal with growing crime rates.

Intervention needs to be immediate, as data from April 2019 revealed that in the past year, cable crime led to over 60,000 minutes of delays across the rail network, compared to roughly 38,000 in 2017-18.

“The issue of metal crime may be regarded as a victimless crime,” comments Acland. “But it certainly isn't. It affects hundreds of thousands of journeys.”

Firstly, explains Kelly, these crimes are a considerable financial burden for both infrastructure manager Network Rail and its operators, who “are paying high costs in terms of the compensation they have to pay out and repairing damages.”

Yet the most worrying side of the problem is that live-cable theft can be extremely dangerous for thieves themselves. As Acland puts it, “They are taking risks themselves whilst putting other people's lives at risk too.

“If they take away cable that is feeding power states for accidents and emergency units, they are effectively putting people's lives in danger. These procedures often affect communications and that is not just picking the pocket of businesses but also potentially threatening passengers’ safety.”

These procedures [are] not just picking the pocket of businesses but also potentially threatening passengers’ safety

Improving security for remote areas and locations is a solution that could be implemented straight away

How can the railways be protected? 

With the price of copper unlikely to drop – at the moment it ranges between $3,000 and $6,000 per tonne – and criminal organisations growingly targeting cable thefts, urgent action is required.

For Acland, the immediate solution is re-assessing and updating the SMDA, though the lack of funds for local police forces and the absence of clear guidelines on how to act make it all more complicated.

Meanwhile, Kelly believes that crime rates will go down again if enforcement is rigorously undertaken - a move that he believes is much more urgent than upgrading the 2013 act itself.

Having flagged this up at the latest Metal, Stone and Heritage Crime meeting – which took place in Parliament in June this year – the British Metals Recycling Association is also working to stop a new rise in cash payments for metal online.

Within this framework, it recently agreed with advertisement and community website Gumtree that the platform will take down any adverts offering cash for metal.

But as far as the railways are concerned, preventing cable theft is vital to reduce those 60,000 minutes of delays and costs.

“Improving security for remote areas and locations, as well as tracks, is a solution that could be implemented straight away,” says Acland.

One of VPS’s flagship products is the Smart Tower, a wireless security camera system with a motion sensor that is currently being used along stretches of motorway undergoing repairs or construction.

“Something similar could be arranged for any areas or hotspots on the [rail] network where cable thefts are known to be taking place,” he adds.

“By rightfully using technology, we could collect information more readily,” he continues, stressing the need to share baseline data across UK and European forces.

“There's nothing stopping that from happening, other than authorities’ will and the availability of funding jointly with the European police.”