Leading figures in Britain’s rail industry have reiterated calls for an overhaul of the law on scrap-metal dealing to counter the continuing scourge of metal theft.
Figures revealed by Network Rail show that efforts to deter cable thieves are having an impact, with crimes affecting train services were down 15 per cent in 2011-12 to 844 incidents from 995 the previous year. However the total direct cost to the industry rose from £16.4m to £18.3m; an increase of 12 per cent, because the thefts have spread to busier and more complex parts of the network, where repairs are more expensive and loss of service causes greater disruption.
Network Rail recently hosted a rail summit to share best practice and information on how to fight the thieves. Representatives from train and freight operators, British Transport Police and the ORR attended alongside staff from Network Rail’s own operations.
Dyan Crowther, director, operational services for Network Rail, said: “Our massive effort against cable thieves is having effect. Crimes and delay to passengers and freight are down on last year. However they are still at an unacceptably high level. We firmly believe that without legal reform we will continue to see thousands of hours delay and millions of pounds wasted on these crimes.”
Network Rail has invested millions of pounds protecting key locations and funding extra British Transport Police officers. This has combined with public support in reporting criminals and improved sentencing in courts.
Mrs Crowther added, “We are grateful for the public support we continue to receive in reporting suspicious activity – both on the railway and at disreputable scrap dealers. We will continue to do all we can to stop these thieves but it is clear the law needs substantial change in order to take away the easy market for illegal scrap.”
The Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act, which received the Royal Assent on 1 May, includes provision for a ban on cash transactions by scrap metal dealers, but the railway sector is just one of those calling for much wider changes to include a robust licensing scheme for dealers to replace the present registration scheme, greater powers for police and magistrates and a requirement for dealers to check and record the identity of sellers and their vehicle registration details.
Gary Cooper, head of operations at the Association of Train Operating Companies, said: “Cable theft regularly causes disruption for thousands of passengers and costs the taxpayer millions. [The new Act] is an important step in helping us to tackle the problem, but further changes to the law now need to be made to create a robust new licensing regime covering all scrap yards, giving police and councils the power to search and investigate them, and to close down any dealers involved in theft.”
Tony Berkeley, chairman of the Rail Freight Group, added: “Cable theft continues to cause major delay to freight trains on a daily basis, causing significant problems for freight operators and their customers. The cost of disruption is significant and impacts on their businesses, their employees, and ultimately the whole UK economy.”
Metal theft is causing serious and repeated disruption not only on the railways but also for power and telecoms network operators and it is a growing problem for the Highways Agency. Public monuments and artworks have also been targeted, while lead-roofed churches are especially hard-hit.