TRAIN operators are calling for a nationwide crackdown on rogue scrap metal dealers in a bid to end the chaos for commuters caused by thieves stealing railway cable.
Nexus, the firm in charge of the Tyne and Wear Metro system, is to petition the Home Office for a change in the law to make it harder for crooks to sell stolen cable.
They want to see scrap dealers banned from paying in cash and required to have licences which could be taken off them if they are caught buying any stolen metal.
Nexus also plans to contact businesses and organisations across the north east to get a better picture of the scale of the problem, believed to be costing millions of pounds a year.
The north east is thought to be the worst hit part of the country, with gangs stealing millions of pounds’ worth of copper cable from train lines and phone companies, as well as lead from school and church roofs and even plaques from cemeteries and war memorials, for a small fraction of what it costs their owners to replace it.
It was revealed last week that the number of raids on the Metro system has more than trebled in the last year, and rarely a month goes by without the News Guardian reporting on disruption caused to commuters by cable theft.
Gangs are cutting through high-voltage power cables and expensive signal equipment to cash in on increasing scrap metal prices.
Latest figures reveal there have been 18 scrap metal raids on the Metro system since April. That compares to 13 all last year.
Nexus managers estimate that the thefts cost them around £300,000 a year.
Ken Mackay, pictured, director of rail for the transport firm, said: “The overall cost of incidents on Nexus infrastructure alone is estimated to be £293,000.
“The value of metal stolen is often negligible, and in some cases it has been found abandoned or the thieves have caused damage but taken nothing.
“The major costs arise from providing replacement bus services and deploying staff to assist passengers, the staff resources and equipment required to make repairs, deferring other important maintenance and renewal jobs and the loss of revenue and goodwill among passengers.
“The wider economic cost to the region from people missing appointments, being late for work or being put off travelling has not been estimated.
“We are stepping up security with police and using new technology to prevent thieves from striking, but to really tackle this problem, big changes are needed in the way the scrap metal industry is regulated.”
Tynemouth MP Alan Campbell has added his voice to calls for a change in the law, saying: “We, as travellers, are paying a high price for metal theft.
“Scrap metal dealers need to be licensed and not just registered.”
Last month, a gang stole more than a mile of copper telephone cable at Seaton Delaval, leaving 600 homes and businesses without phone or internet services for two weeks.
Other recent thefts have included that of a 50ft lightning conductor from the roof of a church in Whitley Bay and those of a dozen copper lightning-conducting strips from Newcastle Business Village in Benton between Friday, September 16, and the Monday after.
Cable has also been stolen from Metro lines at Percy Main, Wallsend and Howdon over recent months, causing lengthy delays for passengers.