Photo Credit: Cyient
By Keri Allan
Line-side copper cable theft continues to blight the UK’s rail infrastructure. Aside from the cost implications, which can run into millions of pounds a year, it also has the potential to trigger highly unwelcome service disruptions.
The role of the British Transport Police is obviously key to catching the criminal gangs involved but technology is increasingly helping to limit the illicit removal of valuable copper groundwork.
British Transport Police Detective Inspector, Darren Gough, says:
“You might think it is a victimless crime but it’s not. It hurts communities, it brings the transport network to a halt and we will do everything in our power to stop this offending”
According to Network Rail’s own figures, over 3,500 trains were affected by copper cable theft in 2017, which resulted in delays of more than 28,700 minutes. Bill Kelly, Chief Operating Officer for Network Rail in Wales and Borders, says his company takes the impact of these delays very seriously.
Train delays and cancellations directly affect people going about their daily lives, such as getting to and from work and visiting family. With more passengers travelling on our network than ever before, even a small delay can have a huge impact on the network.
The scale of the problem is well illustrated by a single case from early 2017. In one incident a man was jailed for cutting copper cable from live lines and selling it for £1,000. The cost to Network Rail, however, was around £164,500 and resulted in more than 3,000 minutes of delays to trains in the East Midlands area.
The good news is that copper cable theft is on the decline but the problem isn’t going away. Just last November more than 100 scrap metal dealers across England and Wales received visits from the police as part of Operation Crucible. Most were found to be operating legally but significant finds of stolen metal were made. Part of the reason for reduction in line-side metal theft is due to the 2013 amendment to the Scrap Metal Dealers Act.
“Practically overnight, it rendered the possession of stolen metal a threat to the livelihoods of the relatively few unscrupulous criminal scrap metal dealers, who were able, up to that point, to buy copper cable that was obviously stolen with ‘no questions asked’,”
says Phil Cleary, Chief Executive of risk management and forensic coding company SmartWater.
“It was these people who fuelled cable theft, tainting the reputable metal dealers in the process.”
‘Traceability’ technology has played a key role in reducing thefts as in the past possessing cable marked ‘Property of Network Rail’ was seen as insufficient to secure a conviction – the courts require a higher level of proof that the cable had been stolen. That’s where chemical marking technology comes into play – so-called ‘smart water’.
This deploys an integrated, forensic marking system that sprays offenders with a chemically coded, indelible liquid when triggered by unauthorised activity. It is invisible to the naked eye but shines brightly under UV light. However, the cost of protecting the entire rail network with a system like this would be prohibitive. Cleary explains:
“So, working with the insurance sector and other stakeholders, we use cutting-edge crime pattern analysis to track the movement of organised crime gangs so that we can be targeted in the application of SmartWater, both at key hotspots or new areas that are in the path of a transient gang.
“We take a ‘sniper rifle’ approach, using mobile video cameras, rapid response teams comprised of highly professional former military personnel and covert ‘sting equipment’ as opposed to the old-fashioned ‘shotgun’ approach of security guards, fixed CCTV systems and so on, which criminals find easy to work around.”
Cleary goes on to highlight that it is possible to install cable that is forensically traceable back to a particular drum/location. Any stolen copper would then be easily identifiable, making convictions easier:
“The technology exists, it’s proven, but I suspect that procurement teams aren’t aware of the fact,”
“However, by specifying forensic coding as a proactive ‘value added’ measure in tender documents for the supply of cable, it would save huge amounts of money in having to apply the solution retrospectively, in an outbreak of cable theft.”
However, the major challenge is to prevent theft from happening, as most current solutions are forensic-based. Another significant challenge is that some solutions are invasive and require certification. Avinash Chaudhari, Assistant General Manager – Delivery and Operations, Transportation at global rail engineering solutions provider, Cyient, says:
“A non-invasive solution is the need of the hour and as part of our approach to creating industry-based solutions, we are working on prototyping a non- invasive solution using the Internet of Things (IoT).”
Narendra Sivalenka, Cyient’s Senior Manager – Semiconductor, IoT and Analytics, adds:
“Our solution works on the principle of non-invasive detection, and uses the requisite hardware and communication technologies for detecting the cut, alerting, and providing an approximate length of the cut.
“Considering the distance between the junction boxes, LoRaWAN would be the best fit, and to showcase the workability of the solution as a proof of concept, we used a different technology for building the functional prototype.
“Tests on our concept have yielded positive results and efforts are currently underway to make the solution more robust by addressing device sensitivity and ruggedness, and test it in real-world conditions.”
Cable theft is, of course, very dangerous. Sergeant Ben Randall-Webb, from the Proactive CID team in the British Transport Police, explains:
“Any attempt to steal cable is also incredibly dangerous, and anyone seeking to do so risks serious injury – or even death – through electrocution.
“Offences linked to theft of metal on the railway can attract a penalty of up to life imprisonment, so the implications are severe.
“Despite the obvious danger and relative lack of reward, people are still willing to gamble with their lives for the sake of a few metres of cable.”
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