Copper thieves have struck the venerable Manx Electric Railway, stealing what BBC News described as “a substantial length of copper cable” from the tramway’s overhead lines.
It seems nothing is sacred, alas, and some things do seem to be universal.
The price of copper is near an all-time high. It closed at $4.47 a pound on Friday, as reported by kitcometals.com and topped $4.60 in mid-February — quite a jump from early 2009, when it dropped to about $1.25. As media all over the U.S. are reporting, enterprising thieves are stealing the precious metal anywhere they can find it, resulting in some improbable heists. This Feb. 7 New York Times article by Timothy Williams captures the diverse range of targets rather nicely: Catalytic converters in Ohio, underground utilities in California and a daring Oklahoma plunder which felled powerline poles and caused a blackout. They are just three examples from what has become an national — and international — scourge.
Indeed, as the NYT piece points out, the Washington-based Coalition against Copper Theft, described as an advocacy group that includes telecommunications firms, power companies and railroads sees the issue as “a national security issue,” according to Bryan Jacobs, its executive director.
Across the Atlantic, officials have described the MER hit as no less than a “crime against the national heritage of the Isle of Man,” and are appealing for witnesses to come forward. The incident took place along the line between Ballagawne Road and Baldrine Road, Baldrine, between midday on Tuesday, March 1 and 3 p.m. Wednesday, March 2.
More news coverage of the Manx incident can be found at:
- “A crime against the Island’s heritage.” Manx Radio via isleofman.com, March 4, 2011.
- “Copper thieves target railway.” Energy FM, March 4, 2011.
- Appeal for Witnesses by Isle of Man Constabulary. Via manx.net, March 4, 2011.
Yes, even in this picturesque corner of the British Isles known for its vintage railways and tramways, thieves see only pound signs, heritage and the public be damned. MER is hardly the first railway to be vandalized this way, and not even the first heritage operation. In January, thieves targeted overhead lines at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, England, which is home to a heritage tramline as well as vintage trolleybus operation. More about that theft can be seen in local newspaper articles from Jan. 14 and Jan. 21.
Mainline railways are not immune to the plague, which can wreak havoc with passenger traffic. Last month, Lancashire train riders faced severe delays after cables were stolen from on the Manchester-Clitheroe line (as described in this newspaper report and this BBC report).
As British Transport Police Det Insp Andrea Rainey told BBC:
It is not, as some people think, a victimless crime or one that just affects the rail industry; the knock-on effects of the thefts have a far-reaching impact.
Countless people are left stranded at stations whilst repairs to the line are carried out, which results in lost work hours for other businesses and severe disruption for commuters.
BBC also pointed out one solution being employed by Britain’s Network Rail: “SmartWater.” The invisible fluid is “sprayed on the cables and then leaves its unique signature on anything it comes into contact with, such as the thieves’ skin or tools,” according to the BBC. Another BBC piece on SmartWater can be found here.
Back here in the United States, the New York Times piece referred to above describes how some states have taken legislative approaches, trying to regulate the sale of copper by individuals. At the same time, the Times reports, utilities have tried painting copper wire to diminish its scrap value or replacing it with wire that has a lower copper content. In Australia, meanwhile, one suggestion is to declare copper a precious metal in order to better regulate its trade.
With enforcement an expensive and labor-intensive proposition, preventing such crime altogether seems an unlikely goal given how many targets sit effectively unprotected in the great outdoors.