Rail Industry Focus


The eccentric side of cable theft prevention

Source: RTM Feb/Mar 17

Ghost trains, secretive Coke cans and bespoke beer mats: RTM’s Luana Salles speaks to Richard Godwin, Network Rail’s route crime manager for the London North West (LNW) route, about the unusual tactics behind the success of the national cable theft prevention strategy.

The subject of cable theft may not be a very glamorous one, but Network Rail’s varied tactics to deter thieves on the network have been eye-catching. One could have never guessed that the industry’s remarkable success in clamping down on metal theft would have been, amongst other measures, owed to ghost trains, covert cameras stashed away in harmless Coke cans, threatening livery and even flying drones. 

Speaking to RTM, Richard Godwin, the infrastructure owner’s route crime manager for the LNW route who was instrumental in helping shape the national cable theft prevention programme, said these unexpected and often quirky technologies helped make the industry a global leader when it comes to both preventing and recovering from theft. 

Drone trials 

At a Transport Select Committee inquiry in January, British Transport Police (BTP) Deputy Chief Constable Adrian Hanstock told MPs that his team, in partnership with Network Rail, carry out proactive patrols of the rail network to this day, with a number of successful interventions where thieves were arrested through covert observations. 

“It is still a focus of all our joint teams; we continue to work with the infrastructure to look at likely hotspots and we do preventive patrols,” he added. 

But interestingly, emerging digital technology means the BTP/Network Rail team is now looking at new ways of deterring thieves, such as using drones and remote cameras to keep a vigilant eye on the whole network, Hanstock revealed. 

Expanding on this, Godwin told us that the option of using drones was investigated during the ‘cable theft days’, which reached their peak in 2010-11 – during which over 35,000 trains were affected by almost 1,000 incidents – before numbers started to reverse in 2012 as a result of Network Rail’s efforts. 

They’re now being investigated as part of future use and being trialled “on a restricted basis”. Although most drones are currently deployed for trackside surveillance and surveying, its benefits in reducing danger for on-site employees is significant.

Offbeat solutions 

While drone usage is still in its infancy, other interesting measures that have already been deployed have shown to contribute to Network Rail’s theft prevention scheme. Ghost trains, for example, were sometimes secretly run in the early hours of the day, with BTP officers hidden on-board to catch out thieves taking advantage of vulnerable parts of the network. Covert cameras were concealed in innocuous Coke cans, ballast and fence posts so that they were undetectable to the naked eye. 

Less secretly, the infrastructure owner also put out press releases about these tactics to drive home a deterrent message, paired with a loco that was painted with a Big Brother-style logo that read “Cable thieves: we’re watching you”. Leaflets, posters and even beer mats were distributed to pubs in areas of high crime and where known offenders resided so that they knew to stay away from the railways. 

USE THIS PIC c. British Transport Police edit

Keeping thieves guessing 

Put together, both these secretive and overt messages were “a real big win” for Network Rail, Godwin argued, “because it meant that thieves knew we had deployed secret cameras – but they didn’t know where they were going to be”. 

“Anytime, they risked being picked up on camera,” he said. “Realistically, with all the thousands of track miles we have nationally, we didn’t have cameras covering the whole network – but we were able to build intelligence pictures and build up profiles of the vulnerable points that they were targeting, such as close links to main roads and quiet roads and bridges that were interspersed in the railway. 

“We were able to be proactive and pre-empt where they were going to go, and that enabled us to deploy cameras, get images and respond quickly as well, because we created patrol strategies around where we’d built up a risk profile. And we were only really able to do that by all our joint working and access to intelligence.” 

No silver bullet 

Although Hanstock had argued during the committee inquiry that the biggest reason for this success story was legislation – the Scrap Metal Dealers Act came in 2013 – Godwin disagreed. Looking at the figures, there had already been around an 80% reduction in theft by the time the Act came into force – although the law was indeed “the last piece of the jigsaw”. 

Asked what he would attribute the success to, Godwin said he can’t put it down to just one tactic. “We were very keen to say there wasn’t any silver bullet in terms of prevention. It was a layered approach to multiple mitigations to make it more difficult for people to steal cable,” he added. 

A lot of it was down to data sharing and collaboration, but much was also linked to burying cabling and locking the troughing to make stealing more difficult – as well as forensically marking cables and fence lines and deploying deterrent signage. 

“As we went along, we raised awareness, we were extra vigilant, we made sure that when projects were undertaken that we built in futureproofing and target hardening. We developed toolkits and best practice for projects as well,” added Godwin. “We looked at the impact of delays, so it wasn’t just theft prevention but also how to respond quicker to a theft and get the railway running quicker so that the impact is lessened. 

“We had scamp units – lorries that were manned 24/7 and fully loaded with multiple different types of cable drums – and invested heavily in fault-finding equipment. We looked at how to reduce the impact of temporary block working, which is where we block trains from signal to signal and only run so many trains an hour through sections. We looked at how we managed incidents and opened routes quicker. It was a two-fold, really: reduce the impact, but reduce the incidence as well.” 

Business as usual 

After the three-year prevention programme, which ran until 2014, these proactive and reactive techniques were built into CP5 as part of ‘business as usual’ within routes. But its effects were felt even beyond the industry: Network Rail also worked tirelessly with magistrates to make them aware of the countrywide impact of cable theft on everyday rail commuters and goods being transported by freight. 

The team managed to drive this message home and, as a result, toughened sentencing for several high-profile crimes. One organised gang of eight Romanian men that travelled from Birmingham to the Cotswolds to steal cable, for example, received a collective total of 23 years’ imprisonment. 

The result? The rail industry is now at the forefront of tackling cable theft. In fact, when the network was already starting to have widespread success in stamping out this problem, metal theft in other industries was still on the rise. 

“The criminal fraternity know about the high-level convictions and jail sentences that other gangs got, so they’re going to hopefully then pick lower-hanging fruit and stay away from the railway,” argued Godwin. 

“We hope we can maintain that deterrent message. The risk is dependent on the price of metal increasing – but the work we’ve already put in place, and the work that’s now part of business as usual, means that we should be able to react quickly if anything happens and maintain the fact that it’s still difficult to steal cable from the rail network.”

© British Transport Police


Andrew Gwilt   10/03/2017 at 07:45

I don't know how such idiots can go to such extreme lengths just to steal cables that is live and they risk their lives just to steal cables to make money by selling the cables that is stolen. And that's why it's costing the government, Network Rail and the rail operators £millions on delays just because of some idiot had stolen live cables.

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