5 live Reports: Copper Theft in the UK
It all started when I heard a story about a thief who electrocuted himself while trying to steal cable from an electricity substation. Who would want to risk life and limb for a few metres of cable? The answer lies in the copper inside.
Recently, there's been an increasing number of court cases involving cable theft from rail networks. When a court case came up in Nottingham I thought it was time I had a closer look at the issue and found out just how bad the problem is.
Hearing the court case told me all I needed to know. The two thieves only stole a few metres of cable from the East Coast Main Line at Newark in Nottinghamshire but more than one hundred trains were affected, with thousands of passengers delayed. The two men, in their mid twenties, were sentenced to three years each.
5 live's Sarah Sturdey with Sgt Philip Bentley of the British Transport Police
The courts are taking the crime very seriously.
It's not just the theft, but the repercussions. People are prevented from getting to work because their train is delayed by copper theft. Electricity supplies are disrupted. Gas supplies targeted. Even small copper parts stolen from outside homes can create gas leaks. Telecoms cable is also on the hit list. Customers are left without phones, again potentially dangerous if emergency calls are needed. The deeper I looked into the issue the more widespread the theft of copper was evident.
What's fascinating is that it's all linked to the price of copper. It's now at record levels and when the price of copper is high, so too is cable theft. China is at the forefront of demand. So a thief trying to grab some quick cash by hacking through a few metres of cable in Newark and selling it on at a scrap metal dealers is linked to the global economy.
To get to the root of the problem, I accompanied British Transport Police (BTP) on the ongoing Operation Drum. A 13-year-old boy and an 18-year-old had been apprehended on the rail line at two'o'clock in the morning. The boy was carrying a pair of bolt croppers. British Transport Police found a hole in the fence and, not far away, the cable. And now police were hoping to catch up with a third suspect.
A British Transport Police Detective Inspector led the arrest. The teenager was still in bed. His mum wasn't happy about recording inside the house so I waited outside while the police went in.
Glancing over the fence down the side of the house and, there, lying on the ground in a heap was a pile assorted cable, of varying colours, in clear view. A few minutes later the teenager in jogging bottoms, t-shirt and trainers was being escorted in handcuffs to a police car. Then the search with three other uniformed BTP officers began. It wasn't long before they appeared with 30 metres of thick cable and two well-filled holdalls. All taken away to be assessed for evidence.
So how common is this? It's been around for a while. British Transport Police were able to provide figures which show cable theft on the rail line this Janaury is twice what it was the same time last year. And already well beyond the last high in January '08. The Energy Networks Association, which represents the electricity companies, told me they expected it to get even worse as there's a predicted world copper deficit.
Although copper prices are soaring, the return for criminals is often relatively small. The two Newark thieves only received £44 for their copper haul, despite causing chaos on the London to Edinburgh line on a busy commuter Friday.
BTP also took me along to a reputable scrap metal yard for one of their routine checks. Inside, beyond the high mound of a mass of mangled metal in the main yard, were huge sheds. In the first the BTP officer spot-checked some cable, to see if it had Network Rail coding. The officer told me it was like looking for a needle in a haystack. In the next shed, pile upon pile of recycled copper - all wrapped in plastic and looking like a pack of dried noodles, minus it's usual shiny copper colour. Close by a large container full of tiny bits of very bright, shiny copper - much of it was heading for China.
So, from the rail line at Newark to an arrest in South Yorkshire, to the scrap dealers, I'd followed the copper chain. Maybe next stop China.
The latest estimates put the cost of cable theft to industry at £770 million pounds. So next time you're wondering why your rail ticket costs so much, or your electricity bill has gone up, the often illegal quest for the finite resource of copper could have something to do with it.
5 live will be looking at the issue of copper theft throughout the day on Thursday 17 February, 2011.
Sarah Sturdey is 5Live's East Midlands reporter.