Police warn that an epidemic of stolen cables is the biggest threat to Britain's security after terrorism
An epidemic of copper thefts across the UK has grown so serious that police are warning of the threat it poses to Britain's infrastructure. Emergency services and online business security are being undermined, with railway lines and telephone networks routinely disabled by thefts.
Police recorded the highest level of copper thefts in January and warned that almost any metal is at risk of being stolen for scrap, from cabling at telephone exchanges and electricity substations, to church roofs and even manhole covers.
Chief Superintendent Eamonn Carroll of British Transport Police (BTP) said: "Cable theft is the next biggest priority after the terrorist threat. The disruption and the problems it can cause are immense."
Experts confirmed the cost to the UK has more than doubled to £770m in the past 12 months.
BTP is now pushing for new legislation to stop stolen copper from being sold at scrapyards for cash. More than 325 cable snatches have already been recorded this year. Last year's total of 2,770 showed an increase of 65 per cent over 2009's total of 1,674. Organised gangs risk death by using power tools to cut through live train signalling, electricity and data cables – in some cases using quad bikes to tow up to 200m of copper at a time.
Dyan Crowther of Network Rail first spotted an escalation in cable thefts in Yorkshire and the North-east in 2006. She said: "They cut either end, and rip it out, some using quad bikes, but we've known some thieves who take it away in a wheelbarrow. It can be that basic. It's also dangerous for the thieves, They can be hit by trains or be electrocuted." After a theft, signals turn red and trains have to be directed with hand signals, causing major service disruptions.
Several people were recently arrested in Saltash in Cornwall, Newcastle and the Midlands, and a man in the North-east was treated for burns after he tried to hack through a cable. In Nottingham, two copper thieves were jailed for three years earlier this month.
Police launched a manhunt last month for people who caused chaos on the Forth Bridge in Scotland as they tried to steal copper. And trains were severely disrupted last year after a 650v live signalling cable was severed at Inverkeithing in Fife. BTP said thieves have been stealing copper cable from railway lines in South Wales almost every night.