Copper thieves spark mainline rail chaos

Sarah BrealeyOrganised gangs stealing copper cable from railway lines in the region have cost Network Rail more than �2m that would have been spent on improving the network, the EDP can reveal.Sarah Brealey

Organised gangs stealing copper cable from railway lines in the region have cost Network Rail more than �2m that would have been spent on improving the network, the EDP can reveal.

In the latest incident yesterday, thieves cut out cable and caused disruption to services on the Norwich to London Liverpool Street line from the morning rush hour until mid afternoon.

Train services were severely reduced and commuters were forced to catch buses after the theft near Witham station in Essex in the early hours.

When trains passed the point where the cables were missing, they caused sparks to fly, setting fire to signalling and communication equipment.

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Last night, Network Rail spokesman Russell Spink condemned the thieves as 'mindless idiots' and said the firm was counting the ongoing cost of such incidents, which have numbered four in the last nine days.

He said: 'This is costing us money. When there is a delay it is somebody's fault. When the delay is caused by an infrastructure issue it's not fair for the train operator National Express East Anglia to pay for it, so we pay compensation to them.

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'We have paid out �2m already this year in the eastern region just because of delays caused by cable theft. In the last seven days there has been a combined total of 15,000 minutes of delays to trains.'

Mr Spink added: 'It's a nightmare. We apologise to the passengers, but we are also the victims of these mindless idiots.'

He said Network Rail worked closely with British Transport Police to track down the offenders. Patrols had been stepped up, intelligence gathering improved and a �1,000 Crimestoppers reward offered for information leading to a conviction for cable theft.

He added: 'Anything that comes out of our coffers is money that is lost from infrastructure improvements.'

The copper cable is stolen because of its high resale value as scrap metal. Network Rail is gradually replacing copper cable with aluminium, which is worth considerably less.

Trains were suspended for a time during the morning rush hour, while from 10am until 3pm, the usual half-hourly service from Norwich to London was only running every hour because just one line of track was being used in each direction.

Passengers could travel by train to Colchester, but then had to board a bus from Colchester to Chelmsford, then get back on the train at Chelmsford for the rest of the journey.

Emma Farrant from Norwich was furious about the delays. Speaking before buses arrived to take passengers on from Colchester, she said: 'I am going to London for a day out and this has completely ruined it.'

The incident also had an impact on train operating company National Express East Anglia, which was forced to cancel an announcement about planned improvements because key contributors were caught up in the rail delays.

At 10am the company was due to announce the introduction of thousands of extra seats between Ipswich and London Liverpool Street on new and refurbished trains.

A spokeswoman for National Express East Anglia, said: 'We would like to apologise to our customers for the disruption affecting train services in the Hatfield Peverel area. Network Rail completed repairs to the signalling equipment during the afternoon and we were endeavouring to provide the best possible service through the evening peak period.'

Among those held up was transport minister and Ipswich MP Chris Mole, who was on his way to launch the improved services.

A spokesman for British Transport Police said: 'We can't comment on who is responsible. We had stepped up patrols in this area, but we have 100 miles of track to cover and can't be everywhere at once.'

Train services are back to normal today.

t Anyone with information on the cable cutting should contact British Transport Police on 0800 405040.

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