First it was leaves on the line, then it was the wrong kind of snow. However, now there is a new excuse for delays on the train to Orpington: The price of copper.
Soaring demand from China and India has pushed copper theft from railway infrastructure to record levels in Britain. The crimewave has hit 11,000 trains in a year and delayed a million passengers.
Network Rail, which first highlighted the problem in the north-east of England when the copper boom took off four years ago, has set up a taskforce to deal with incidents that have seen £35 million (US$55 million) worth of copper stripped from railsides since 2006. If the epidemic is unchecked the annual takings of copper thieves will be £20 million a year by 2014, Network Rail estimates.
The taskforce, which also includes train operators and the British Transport Police, is calling for tougher sentencing, a crackdown on rogue scrap merchants and legislation to give the police greater power over errant metal dealers who sell the stolen copper on.
Gangs are disabling swaths of the rail network by ripping out lines attached to track signals, which use copper to convey control center messages and power. Once power is lost to rail signals, the lights revert to auxiliary power and immediately switch to red until repair teams arrive, causing instant disruption.
Network Rail estimates that passengers are delayed by nearly 500,000 minutes a year because of the thefts.
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