How to Combat Cable Theft in Railways?

Cable thefts cost rail networks millions of euros pounds and dollars each year.

The true cost of cable theft reaches far beyond the material costs of replacing the cables. Severe traffic disruption, delays and passenger dissatisfaction add to the collateral costs of this crime not to mention the risks incurred cutting or leaving live cables exposed.

Two people in big coats stealing rail cables
With our solution we provide walking, digging and cable tampering detection

Sensonic offers a response to this security challenge, that can not only detect events before cables are cut but can also detect other precursor site activities delivering vital asset security risk intelligence. This early warning without reliance on patrols or discrete sensors and cameras can alert networks and authorities before cable theft occurs – providing the opportunity to prevent costly railway disruption.

The scale of this security challenge is large. Network Rail in the UK cited cable theft costs of over £43m in 2014 and there were over 2000 hours of vandalism or theft related train delays over the past 12 months. In one six-week period the costs of cable theft in one region totalled almost £630,000.

The story is similar across Europe with Belgium suffering 3 times as many cable thefts in 2022 than the previous year incurring over 500 hours of train delays.

In recent years Germany has also seen cable losses more than €15m. Thefts in Germany are also up 21% compared to last year. Some estimates put the annual cost of cable theft across Europe at nearly €9 billion.

Whilst many initiatives from networks and police forces try to combat this often-organised crime, the difficulty of protecting long stretches of often relatively exposed railway assets remains difficult. As scrap copper prices rise, cable thefts typically also increase with railway networks often seen as a soft and lucrative target due to their often-isolated locations, small security forces and high value cables.

Sensonics security solution, turns existing optical fibres into sensitive vibration sensors along their entire length. The technique, called Distributed Acoustic Sensing (DAS), allows existing fibre optic cables to be used to detect vibration along their length. The latest generation of Sensonic sensing equipment can detect people walking near the track/cable route and ground digging activities.

Cable theft is rarely an opportunistic attack on critical rail infrastructure. It is usually planned, with criminals visiting and preparing the site before any cables are cut. Often the site is visited on one or more occasion to look for potential security patrols and ensure high value cables are easily accessible. The trough lids on cable ducts are usually removed, and the signalling or power cables inspected to ensure both their value and accessibility at points along the cable route to be stolen. Any cable restraints securing the cable to the infrastructure are cut and removed leaving the cable easy to remove in a future theft visit. The trough lids are then replaced to avoid any raising any suspicion from passing patrols or staff. All these precursor activities are completed before any cables are cut, and before infrastructure owners are aware that assets have been targeted for theft.

These precursor events are clearly visible to the Sensonic security system as it can detect pedestrian activity, together with cable movements as well as ground disturbances such as digging.

Each disturbance can be resolved in near real-time to a specific distance along the fibre route. This means an exact track location can be determined to within 7m (around 10 paces) giving precise locations for targeted action. These actions might be enhanced security measures such as new targeted patrols, upgraded fences, new access restriction methods. or directed covert actions to catch the criminal gangs in the act when they return.

It is rare to be able to gain such specific and insightful information before a cable theft has been committed, so the Sensonic security system is sure to be of value to many rail network operators trying to tackle this ongoing disruptive challenge.

This article was originally published by Sensonic.

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