Senior railway managers have launched a stinging condemnation of cable thieves.
Criminals are targeting the communications and power cables that control equipment such as signals and points, stealing them to sell for cash to rogue scrap dealers.
Such is the impact of cable theft that British Transport Police treats the crime as its second-highest priority after terrorism.
Nor is the problem confined to railways. Power and telecoms networks also face a continuing battle to repair damage and restore services to beleaguered customers.
Last summer E.On reported a series of organised chainsaw attacks on wooden poles carrying overhead wires, in one case leaving live conductors hanging just a metre from the ground.
The price of copper has risen dramatically over the last decade, driven by growing global demand as countries like China expand their industrial base, so the scrap value has shot up too, leading to reports that organised crime gangs are seeking to profit from the situation.
In a strongly-worded statement Network Rail announced last week that the consequences of cable theft had cost nearly £43m in three years and resulted in over 16,000 hours of delay, affecting millions of passengers. The number of attacks is now running at over six a day.
In 2010-11, £16.5m was lost as a result of nearly 1,000 incidents, and services were delayed by more than 6,000 hours.
British Transport Police made more than 900 arrests and recorded 3,000 crimes – a higher figure than Network Rail’s because it includes thefts and damage to redundant equipment and other crimes such as “going equipped”.
Network Rail uses CCTV and its own helicopter to monitor the network. It uses forensic marking, trembler alarms and other devices and for new installations employs a custom cable that is readily identifiable and harder to steal.
Dyan Crowther, director, operational services at Network Rail, said: “Every day passengers and essential freight deliveries upon which our economy relies are being delayed by thieves looking to make a quick buck.
"I cannot over-emphasise just how serious these crimes are.
"We are doing everything we can to protect the railway and will continue to work closely with British Transport Police and other rail partners to do everything in our power to deter thieves and bring those who attack our network to justice.”
Gary Cooper, head of operations at the Association of Train Operating Companies, added: “Operators and the industry as a whole are determined to crack down on the thieves, whose actions lead to extra work for staff and cost of millions of pounds, money which could be invested in improving services for passengers.
"The thieves are also putting themselves at risk of serious injury.
"Train companies are working closely with Network Rail and BTP to reduce and eventually eliminate this dangerous and disruptive crime, but tougher measures are needed to help tackle it.”