Rail Industry Focus

14.03.16

Deterring cable theft through DNA

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 16

James Brown, managing director at Selectamark Security Systems plc, discusses the successful work of the rail industry in reducing cable thefts.

The use of DNA markers and warning signs saying it is in use have been key factors in ensuring no live cable thefts for nearly two years on the HS1 route, RTM has been told. 

Since 2013, Selectamark Security Systems plc has used its SelectaDNA product, a specially-formulated spray containing UV markers, synthetic DNA and metal particles that can be used to identify cables, on the Network Rail-maintained route. Copper cable, rail track and signal boxes have been marked along the length of the line and deterrent warning signs have been erected on perimeter fencing. 

Speaking to RTM after SelectaDNA won the ‘Product Innovation’ category at the year’s UK Rail Industry Awards, James Brown, MD at Selectamark, said while there has been an industry-wide effort to tackle cable theft, criminals “do not like seeing something that has the word DNA in it”. 

The company has been working closely with Land Sheriffs since 2011 to successfully reduce and deter metal theft on routes owned by Network Rail, including the Anglia, Kent and Sussex lines. 

In fact, during 2012-13, SelectaDNA Trace, in conjunction with other security measures, helped reduce cable theft on Network Rail’s Anglia route by 82% and helped cut delays by 86%. 

Tyler Le May from Land Sheriffs said: “Once metal has been marked, its resale value to the criminal plummets. We have found SelectaDNA to be a highly effective way of deterring metal thieves in the first instance.

“Thieves know that if they are caught with metal marked with SelectaDNA then the police are able to connect them directly to a particular theft and they will almost certainly be convicted.” 

Brown added that the efforts of British Transport Police, Network Rail, TOCs, commercial companies and legislation, specifically the Scrap Metal Dealers Act 2013, which makes it easier for police to track thieves through scrap metal dealers’ records, have played a “vital role” in tackling cable theft. 

Hard targets 

“But anywhere that is protected with a DNA marker is a really hard target because they [the criminals] don’t want to risk it,” he said. “Criminals understand DNA, they read about it in the news, and they know it links them to crimes.” 

A key element to the success of DNA markers is the use of the warning signage, said Brown. “The HS1 route has somewhere in the region of 1,000 to 2,000 signs along the railway down to the coast. There is not a section that someone trying to target stealing metal or cable wouldn’t know was protected. I think that is a key factor. 

“Police forces also have an important role to play in re-enforcing the DNA message, because if the criminals don’t believe the police are checking for such markers it loses its impact.” 

Selectamark has also trained up a detection dog, Jazz, to sniff out the forensic marking on stolen metal. In 2014, she was deployed as part of Met Police’s Operation Ferrous, a week-long campaign which resulted in more than 10 arrests, a scrapyard closure and the recovery of £4,600 of Thames Water cable and 50kg of BT cable. 

“The search dog capability cannot be underestimated,” said Brown. “As soon as criminals hear there is a search dog that can sniff out stolen cable – that is pretty powerful.” 

While he acknowledges that a fall in copper prices has played some part in the reduced number of thefts over recent years, he still believes that industry efforts since 2010-11, when there were 995 reported incidents, have played a major role in cutting cable theft figures. 

Looking to the future, Brown added that major infrastructure projects like HS2, Crossrail and Northern Powerhouse Rail (formerly HS3) will provide further opportunities for using DNA markers. 

“It is not only cable and infrastructure, but the tools and equipment that the product can protect,” he said, adding: “Whilst we are really excited about the work we’re doing, it is only three of Network Rail’s routes, plus HS1. There is plenty of other potential out here.”

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