Cable theft on the railway was rife in 2010 - 2013. Although it has significantly dropped since the laws on scrap dealing were changed, there are still to this day sporadic cable theft or intentionalcable fire events which cause extensive and crippling delays. 


Help wanted to catch Railway cable thieves!

Railway cable theft between 2008  and 2013 cost the UK over £73 million

During the time British Rail was the sole operator of the railway network it had a public image of never running trains on time, in many cases unfortunately this was true mainly due to lack of funding, outdated trains and end-of-life equipment.

Even though privatisation made a little difference with the forming of Railtrack and some investment, it was still plagued with delay.

Since 2004 with the creation of Network Rail, it has become a success story and delay is being drastically reduced every year. However in 2019, cable theft is starting to make a return. 

Although railway cable theft has been significantly reduced since changes in the law, there are still daily reported thefts causing massive amounts of delay and cost.


One of the things that is now a major contributor to train delay is cable theft.

Cable theft is one of those things that is out of NR's control and is still causing millions of pounds worth of delay every year.

There are some things that NR is doing to help combat cable thieves, or speed up the recovery these are:

  • Hidden covert cameras that can take superb high resolution pictures and send them remotely to NR's control centre immediately on activation. 
  • Looking at our European neighbours to see how they are fighting it, they have a big cable theft problem too.
  • Introducing new cable with identification tag (this is used to convict thieves when caught), the new cable is also fire proof, knife proof and armoured, but is very expensive.
  • Cable alarms; these are installed at known theft areas and will be triggered if the cable is disturbed.
  • Burying cable has been trialled, but it is then inaccessible to the signalling technicians should a cable fault occur.
  • More metal security fencing is being installed every day.
  • A new multi purpose lorry is being trialled out in the Sheffield area, this lorry carries all types of replacement cable drums, jointing kits, fuses, cable jacks and rail mounted trolley.
  • Signalling circuits are using British Telecom lines and thus getting away from using lineside signalling cables.
  • British Transport Police are carrying out more patrols and using fingerprint, DNA technology and Smart-water to catch cable thieves.
  • Network Rail has bought two state-of-the-art helicopters with the same camera technology as the police to carry out patrols on the railway network anywhere in the UK.
  • NR campaigned through the courts and in some cases the charge to cable thieves is now endangering passengers lives.


Railway cable theft has been significantly reduced since the new Scrap metal dealers law in October 2013:

Financial Year          No. of incidents          Delay minutes          Compensation cost          Total Cost
2012/13                                     285                                 160,260                          £5,823, 094                     £12,765, 935
2011/12                                      845                                 344,680                         £12, 000, 679                  £18,337,504
2010/11                                      995                                 365, 430                        £12, 132, 860                   £16,404, 255
2009/10                                    656                                 321, 570                         £10, 931, 350                  £13,511, 889
2008/09                                    742                                283, 167                         £7, 858, 516  

The railway has also seen a rise in the number of other metal objects stolen such as signalling equipment cabinet doors, padlocks, cable duct covers, actual semaphore arms, mechanical point rodding amongst many other things.


So why does it take so long to repair a cable on the rail network?

On the railway, safety is NR's ultimate first priority, so all the safety measures in place must work as designed.

One of the biggest safety measures in place is the sophisticated and complicated signalling systems that keep the trains a safe distance apart, divert trains onto another line and protect the public at level crossings, so its imperative it works first time everytime.

When a cable is cut, depending on its size it can have massive consequences, it may affect just one piece of equipment and just one line or it can halt an entire station and a network of lines.

The cables at the lineside come in many sizes and contain a number of cores (the wire inside) this ranges from single core (1 core) up to 48 cores. A busy line can have multiple cables.

The lineside also has power cables and telecoms cables. The power cable carries 650 volts LIVE and powers all the signalling equipment, so if this was cut it would affect everything within a large area, this could be up to 10-20 miles. Apart from when maintenance is carried out on the power supply, it is NEVER turned off. The telecoms cables are used for some signalling circuits, telephones and also domestic telephones, so when a telecoms cable is cut, it could also affect your own home phone!

When a cable is cut or stolen, it has to first be found, and as mentioned before, if its a power cable there could be up to 20 miles of track to search for where it has been cut or stolen, this can be narrowed down, but it still takes time.

Once its found it has to be confirmed and isolated (some cables are redundant and can confuse the situation).

If multiple cables are cut, these have to be matched together to make sure the right cable is jointed to the other correct cable.

Depending on the size and age of the cable, it can take up to an hour each per joint (fibre optic cables can take a full shift just to joint). If the cable needs reterminating into a location signalling box nicknamed a 'loc' this could take several hours as the old cable needs to be removed, this involves unscrewing nuts where the cable is terminated (six nuts per link, one link per terminated core).

If the cable has been stolen completely. We have to measure how much is required and of what type, fetch the cable from the nearest depot, run out the cable on the track using a rail mounted trolley and cable jacks (this obviously cannot be done with trains running). This takes more time.

Once the cable is jointed, it has to be tested. This first involves 'continuity' test, this is to make sure the correct cable and core is terminated to the correct loc or cable (i.e core 1 of cable 'A' [one side of joint] is terminated to core 1 of cable 'A' [other side of joint]) and so one. Each individual core is tested, don't forget this could be 48 cores (one cable).

The next test is the 'insulation' test. This is a test to check the insulation around each core and the outer sheath is safe (intact). If  the insulation was poor, cracked or broken, cores could come into contact with each other and power circuits which should be dead (thus for instance putting a signal to green that should be red). If the outer sheath is damaged, this could cause an earth fault, this is where natural voltage from the earth (picked up from other spurious sources), could again power up a circuit which should be dead (thus again, moving a set of points, or lifting level crossing barriers that should be down).

Once the cable tests are completed (and passed), the final test, the 'function' test can be done. This is where each individual circuit (i.e; signal, points, level crossing, TPWS [train protection and warning system], AWS [automatic warning system] etc) in that cable is tested. This can take anywhere between 1 hour to 4 hours, sometimes more. Remember these tests are all done between trains running at caution (20mph), the function tests cannot be done with trains passing so thats why it could take longer to do.

From getting the report of loss of signalling to finding the cable theft to testing and signing the signalling back in order can take up to a full eight hour shift and sometimes much more depending on the location, the amount of cable needed, the amount and frequency of trains, the amount of joints needed, and the amount of staff required.

Its impossible to put a definate time on a cable theft, but we can estimate a time and try and stick to it, but as you can see its not a straight forward job, thats why it does cost NR millions of pounds in delay.

Why does it cost so much to Network Rail?

Train operators pay NR to use the tracks. If a train breaks down and blocks the line, that train operating company (TOC) has to pay penalties to NR and other TOC's if their trains are delayed.

On the other hand, if NR delay any trains due to track and signalling problems, they have to pay penalties to each TOC involved, basically NR will have to pay a penalty to each train delayed for each minute it is delayed, this depending on the importance of the line and the train can be up to £300 per train per minute.

Even though cable theft is not caused by NR, unfortunately they are still accountable for it.


Some of the areas in Nottinghamshire & Yorkshire for repeated theft for 2010-2012:

(note this list is not exhaustive, many many other areas are also being targeted)

  • Whitwell Tunnel in Whitwell on the Robin Hood line; hit nearly everyday for two months (CCTV used and cable now buried)
  • Gainsborough Trent, Central and Lea Road areas; (colleague shot in the wrist whilst trying to replace cable)
  • Warsop Junction near Warsop Vale village; (on one occasion just 5 metres of cable stolen causing 4 hours delay)
  • Leeds, Doncaster, Sheffield and Wakefield areas* (causes massive delay to express trains)
  • West Burton power station area (main line)
  • Bole level crossing; (just one incident here, 20m of main power cable stolen, costing £1200 to replace not inc labour or train delay)
  • Hibaldstow level crossing
  • Edwinstowe
  • Woodburn (Rotherham Line)* (this is regularly hit, sometimes affecting the main Sheffield to Lincoln line)
  • Tinsley yard*
  • Treeton Junction*
  • Tuxford (only hit once but this was attempted theft, just one half cut in main 650 volt power cable took nearly two hours to find, hundreds of trains delayed and cancelled on main East Coast route, totally 10,000 minutes of delay, the total cost will be hundreds of thousands of pounds).
  • Retford depot; thieves broke into depot in early hours and loaded 21 drums of cable into a horse box. Featured on Crimewatch Roadshow.
  • Creswell (same automatic warning system cable stolen at least seven times)
  • Welbeck Junction (hit several times, one person caught, charged and convicted)
  • Brinsworth St area in Rotherham. 

*Sorry I can't be more specific on these areas, these are not covered by my delivery unit.

All the areas have been hit on multiple occasions, they have all been subject to increased surveillance, with the use of covert CCTV, cable alarms, Smartwater technology and new underground ducting (then buried). 


How the public can help:

As most visitors to this site have a big interest in the railways and some visit the railway to takes photograph's, there is some advice when you are out and about, but please DO NOT trespass on the railway line or approach suspected cable thieves.

  • All railway employees and contractors MUST wear full orange HI-VIS clothing when on the track, even though the clothing is very easy to get hold of, if trackworkers are not wearing all orange (jacket/top & trousers), they could be trespassers.
  • Cable thieves will likely use large vehicles such as a transit type van, flatbed lorry or trailers, but very small amounts of cable is now being stolen, so could easily be carried by hand or over the shoulder.
  • They are also now using motorbikes and quad bikes to reach inaccessible areas.
  • Thieves will be very quick, sometimes they will loop the cable over the rails and let the train cut the cable into sections to aid the theft. If you see cable laid over the rail, please report it.
  • Cable thieves will cut the cable once and not steal it, this is a 'test' to see if its in use. They will then return later and if it hasn't been repaired, they know they have more time to steal it. Sometimes the cut will be made and the  cable re-covered over, this then  makes it extremely hard to find when the signalling technicians arrive. But the use of pulse-echo equipment is now combatting this.
  • They are also doing site surveys and actually spraying slogans on the grey signalling equipment doors to tell their accomplices which cables to steal.
  • They sometimes stash the cable in hedgerows and return later to pick it up, if you see cable looped up hidden, please report it.
  • They will visit the same site more than once, in some areas they will steal the same cable more than five times. This is sometimes because with the need to get the railway running again the new replacement cable will have to be run-out, terminated, jointed and tested in one shift, the next shift will have to bury or cover the cable, this is when the theives will steal the new cable before that shift has arrived.
  • Many thieves have been caught after cable has been found at their home, if you suspect someone has a stash of cable at home, please report it, it could be legitimate, but better to check.
  • The latest news by BT Police is that contractors working on behalf of Network Rail could be tipping off thieves and advising them on locations of the cable and also the access points.
  • Don't think they just operate at night, it is becoming more common to steal the cable during the day. If you see lights on the track at night that seem suspicious, please report it.
  • Sometimes the thief when spooked will actually say something that will seem very suspicious, this happened to me once when a thief (in an orange 'Jarvis' railway jacket) asked if i'd seen his dog on the track! He was later caught and found to have a car full of railway track & signalling parts.
  • Other things to look out for is missing/damaged fencing, this will aid the thieves, but could also be an access point for children, so please report it immediately.
  • If you think you've seen anything suspicious, please report it to one of the following numbers depending on the urgency:

British Transport Police:

0800 40 50 40


Network Rail Emergency Hotline:

0345 11 41 11


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