Thieves lured by surging copper prices are creating a nightmare for European railways, sparking large-scale disruption, eroding profits and damaging their reputations.
Operators are pouring money into high-tech security measures they hope will prevent the theft of the metal after its price has more than tripled since early 2008 to over $9,000 (U.S.) per tonne.
“Railways in Europe turn into ATM (cash) machines for copper when prices spike,” said Franco Fiumara, director of corporate protection at Ferrovie dello Stato, Italy’s national rail operator.
“The number of thefts is directly correlated,” Mr. Fiumara said. “It hits railway infrastructure heavily, and it’s gotten much worse of late.”
Copper thieves strike usually at night, targeting cables, signal boxes and dynamos at the heart of a railway’s communication system. Most of the signalling equipment is exposed and cables run for hundreds of kilometres, easily accessible to thieves carrying a set of tools.
Last year, theft of copper wire around Europe caused well over 10,000 hours of train delays and tens of millions of euros in damages, five rail operators told Reuters. This year, in spite of heightened security, they expect more of the same.
New security measures include helicopter flyovers of thousands of kilometres of rail network, bulked-up security inside trains, legal measures against scrap resellers and research into copper substitutes.
But unless operators happen upon a viable alternative to copper - or the metal suddenly loses enough value to become unattractive to thieves - the war is likely to drag on, and with it the grinding delays for European commuters.
A spokeswoman for France’s state-owned SNCF rail operator said most of the operator’s 30,000 km of copper cables lie alongside train tracks, covered by a thin layer of cement. Thieves crack the casing, slice through the cable and spool up what they can. They can often steal hundreds of metres of the wire, which is several centimetres thick, in one raid.
Disrupting the flow of electricity in the system automatically provokes a red signal, fooling oncoming trains into thinking that another train is blocking their progress.
By the time a network operator discovers the problem, often late the next morning, time has already been lost. Even hasty repairs bring slowdowns that reverberate across a network.
Each rail operator measures the damage differently. Yet even the roughest estimates are alarming.
Last year in France, where some 132 million people rode high-speed trains, copper theft caused 5,800 hours of delays, triple the amount from 2009. The cost from damages rose to 30 million euros from 20 million in 2009.
“The delays are piling up and the consequences for commuters are very, very serious,” Natalie Kosciusko-Moriset, France’s transport and ecology minister, told a news briefing in March.
SNCF officials declined to provide a delay forecast for 2011 but said police had recorded some 50 copper-stealing events per week since the start of the year - triple the rate of 2009.
The outlook is no brighter in Britain, where National Rail predicts that copper thievery will cause some 500,000 minutes of delays this year in addition to millions of pounds in damages.
“It’s a massive, massive problem for us,” a spokeswoman said. “Those delays are people not getting to business meetings, businesses losing customers, disruptions to an essential service that the country relies on.”
In Italy, copper thieves hit a busy station in central Rome in January in a typical incident, tying up traffic for six hours in the early hours of the day. The train leading to Fiumicino, Rome’s international airport, was delayed for up to 60 minutes.
Last year such incidents caused nearly 45,000 minutes of delays across Italy, and 10,000 minutes of theft-related delays have already been recorded in 2011, the operator told Reuters.
Belgium was hit hard with 48,000 minutes, while a spokesman for Spain’s Adif state rail infrastructure firm admitted copper theft was a real problem but provided no data.
“It’s easier (to steal) on domestic lines, because you can drive up with your car and go to work,” said a spokesman for Belgium’s SNCB operator. “But it’s very dangerous for the guys who do it. Two months ago we came across a guy on the track who had been electrocuted.”
In a rare video shown by French police, grainy surveillance footage shows two hooded men climbing out of a white van parked by the divider of a busy highway in the dead of the night.
Working with power tools, they crack open the casing that houses copper cable, spool up a length of it and toss the bundle into the open back of the van. At the end of the video, a police car pulls alongside them, sirens ablaze.
Examples of police catching thieves red-handed are rare, however. Thieves work quickly and usually race off before police have time to react, selling their goods to scrap yards, which pay in cash and ask no questions about copper’s provenance.
Determined to even out the odds, Italy’s railways have joined forced with utility Enel and Telecom Italia to put up a common front against thieves, beefing up security at a cost of some 10 million euros per year.
“As a railway company, we cannot do more,” Ferrovie dello Stato said in a statement. “For fool-proof protection we could have turned the railway into a kind of subway, sealing it off completely, but that is not possible.”
France unveiled its own battle plan in March, promising to spend €40-million over the next 18 months to fight theft on several fronts, from surveillance and prevention to funding for research into anti-theft technology.
Unveiling the plan, France’s Ms. Kosciusko-Moriset said, “This is a very, very serious problem for commuters, a problem that exists everywhere in Europe.” She said French police would work closely with counterparts outside the country.
In March some 50 helicopters from the Gendarmerie, or national police, started sweeps over thousands of kilometres of exposed track using infra-red vision to spot warm-blooded thieves. Police aboard trains and in stations will seek to spot suspicious behaviour on the railway.
“This is first and foremost a security risk,” an SNCF spokesman said. “Some of the thefts have taken place at peak travel times and caused fires to break out ... The travellers themselves are at risk from these accidents.”
SNCF funds also fuel research into high-tech foils for thieves, including tracker tags that cannot be melted, unbreakable casing and a notching system that causes cables to break into pieces when handled.
Another option is trying to use cheaper alternatives such as aluminum, zinc or optic fibres -- reflecting a trend among industrial users after copper for three-month delivery breached $10,000 per tonne in February. But no substitute has yet proved a match for copper’s flexibility and conductive properties, despite the high price tag attached. Replacing it with a comparatively poor conductor such as aluminum would force operators to retool at great cost, another dissuasive factor.
On the sidelines of the briefing at which France unveiled its anti-theft plan, an aide to the SNCF’s boss whispered that replacing copper was still a far-off prospect.
“It’s something to explore, but it’s not our main bet,” said the aide, who asked not to be named.
Edward Meir, an analyst at MF Global in New York, cites the prospect of rising interest rates and higher oil prices to predict that copper prices could slip to as low as $8,500 by the end of the year.
“That’s not going to prevent any of this thievery, because that’s still quite high, and the thieves have a very good idea about the prices. These days, they’re just as wired as we are.”