An epidemic of copper thefts across the UK has grown so serious that police are warning of the threat it poses to Britain's infrastructure. Emergency services and online business security are being undermined, with railway lines and telephone networks routinely disabled by thefts.
Police recorded the highest level of copper thefts in January and warned that almost any metal is at risk of being stolen for scrap, from cabling at telephone exchanges and electricity substations, to church roofs and even manhole covers.
Chief Superintendent Eamonn Carroll of British Transport Police (BTP) said: "Cable theft is the next biggest priority after the terrorist threat. The disruption and the problems it can cause are immense."
Experts confirmed the cost to the UK has more than doubled to £770m in the past 12 months.
BTP is now pushing for new legislation to stop stolen copper from being sold at scrapyards for cash. More than 325 cable snatches have already been recorded this year. Last year's total of 2,770 showed an increase of 65 per cent over 2009's total of 1,674. Organised gangs risk death by using power tools to cut through live train signalling, electricity and data cables – in some cases using quad bikes to tow up to 200m of copper at a time.
Dyan Crowther of Network Rail first spotted an escalation in cable thefts in Yorkshire and the North-east in 2006. She said: "They cut either end, and rip it out, some using quad bikes, but we've known some thieves who take it away in a wheelbarrow. It can be that basic. It's also dangerous for the thieves, They can be hit by trains or be electrocuted." After a theft, signals turn red and trains have to be directed with hand signals, causing major service disruptions.
Several people were recently arrested in Saltash in Cornwall, Newcastle and the Midlands, and a man in the North-east was treated for burns after he tried to hack through a cable. In Nottingham, two copper thieves were jailed for three years earlier this month.
Police launched a manhunt last month for people who caused chaos on the Forth Bridge in Scotland as they tried to steal copper. And trains were severely disrupted last year after a 650v live signalling cable was severed at Inverkeithing in Fife. BTP said thieves have been stealing copper cable from railway lines in South Wales almost every night.
British Telecom (BT) is now targeting copper theft hotspots in the West Midlands, Lancashire, south Yorkshire, Glasgow, Kent, Surrey and greater London. Network Rail, BT and BTP have set up special metal theft task forces to tackle the crisis.
Bernie Auguste, BT's head of security for Openreach and heavily involved in cross-industry operations to tackle the problem, said thefts have cost the UK £770m in transport infrastructure, data network crashes, failed business transactions and lost calls. "Telecoms service is the lifeblood of the country," he said. "Thefts affect emergency services and can affect vulnerable people and businesses."
Electricity supplies have also been affected. Last September, thieves plunged 1,000 homes in Donaghcloney in Northern Ireland into darkness while trying to steal copper from a high-voltage electricity conductor.
Demand for scrap copper is booming simply because the metal is used in almost every aspect of modern life, from electricity and telecommunication cables, to electronics in computers and household goods.
On international commodities markets, demand for the metal rises in line with increasing demand from countries such as China and India, which are using ever increasing amounts of copper to update their electrical infrastructure.
That demand has driven copper prices up by 41 per cent in the past 12 months. Two weeks ago, it rose to an all-time high of £6,328 a ton on the London Metal Exchange. Prices are expected to increase to £6,832 a ton by the end of 2011.
The police are stepping up their operations in expectation of yet another rise in thefts, particularly in north-east London and Essex, after a spate of problems on the main line into the capital.
Andy Trotter, BTP's Chief Constable, said yesterday: "Despite police arresting more and more offenders and carrying out successful raids on scrapyards, offences continue to rise in line with the price of copper. Britain's infrastructure is being stolen to supply the Chinese market, and it's only going to get worse.
"It will hit everyone: commuters, schools, churches. We need legislative change to tackle this more effectively, including making scrapyards cashless so we have an audit trail and can identify the people involved."