FUELLED by huge demand from the construction sites of eastern Asia, the market price of copper has soared in recent years, leading the distinct and pliable metal to acquire a new name: red gold.

With tens of thousands of kilometres of valuable copper cable lining largely open and unprotected lines throughout the world, railways are particularly vulnerable to the new criminal craze. Opportunist thieves looking for a way of making a quick buck to fuel their drug habit, and even organised criminal gangs, are now regularly stripping out cabling which they can then sell for up to $US 8500 a tonne to scrap metal merchants who are turning a blind eye to where the copper might have originated.

British infrastructure manager Network Rail (NR) says that it experiences copper theft at least six to eight times a day, contributing to 6-8% of all train delays. And the problem is growing. From the epicentre in the northeast of England, cable theft has mushroomed into a network-wide problem. NR estimates that it has cost the railway £43m in the past three years, a figure that does not include the knock-on effect of hours lost in the workplace, which some have estimated could be worth the same amount per year again to the British economy.

It's a similar story in Germany, where 2500 thefts were reported in 2010, and in France where police responded to 3200 reported thefts in 2010, an increase of 170% compared with 2009. This cost French Rail Network (RFF) and French National Railways (SNCF) an estimated Euros 30m, and caused 5800 hours of delays. In South Africa, where copper theft has long been a problem on the conventional network, even the brand new Gautrain has fallen victim to the thieves. Services were delayed in September after signalling wires were cut, and in another incident where a substation was targeted.

In response to the incidents and growing criticism of the new network's reliability, Mr Jack van der Merwe, Gautrain Management Agency CEO, vowed to fight back. Gautrain concessionaire Bombela has since instituted an action plan to counter the thieves, although the company would not reveal the specific details for fear of alerting the criminals, while the South African government has also announced a legal crackdown. Copper thieves might soon be charged with economic sabotage of the state and face harsher prison sentences.

RFF, SNCF, and the French government also announced a similar Euros 40m, 18-month action plan in March 2011, of which Euros 30m is funded by RFF. This follows on from a Euros 12m programme that ran from 2008 to 2010 which focused on securing infrastructure including substations, signalboxes and safety equipment.

The latest plan includes spending Euros 17.2m to protect operations by anchoring and burying the cables where possible, and installing CCTV in particularly vulnerable areas. A further Euros 19.5m has been spent on installing equipment to protect substations, signalboxes and train stabling yards including new alarms and remote monitoring systems, fences, new lighting and the addition of extra security staff. Around 50 helicopters equipped with heat-detecting night vision are now being used to monitor what are considered to be the four most exposed areas, while Euros 3.3m is being invested in technological innovations designed to catch thieves. These include devices that can break the cable into smaller pieces, unbreakable casings, and tracking tags that cannot be melted and are identifiable by scrap metal merchants.

Methods to mark cables which can then be tracked to the specific location from which they were stolen when received by scrap metal merchants are proving to be particularly effective at catching thieves.

SmartWater, Britain, has developed a chemical coding technology which is only visible under an ultraviolet light and is being used to tag copper cable. The substance is virtually impossible to remove and is capable of withstanding burning. It will also mark an offender's skin, hair and clothes (pictured) and will place them at a crime scene. Austrian Federal Railways (ÖBB) is trialling the system, while German Rail (DB) has adopted the technology on hundreds of kilometres of track in North Rhine Westphalia and eastern Germany. In Britain, SmartWater is used on High Speed 1 and since September 2010 on the West Coast Main Line where there has been a 21% reduction in cable theft along the route since it was applied.

However, this is not the only method of prevention that is being deployed. Ms Dyan Crowther, NR director of operational services, told the British government's transport select committee in November that there is no "silver bullet" for preventing cable theft so the track authority is utilising a variety of methods to deter and catch thieves.

Like RFF, NR has also increased its surveillance capability. CCTV is installed in areas recognised as being most at risk and during re-signalling work when cable might an easy target. Crowther says cable is no longer laid out ready to go into the troughing during this work, making it harder for opportunist thieves who need to get in and out quickly. "We know that when we are about to undertake a re-signalling scheme the risk for cable theft increases because it's almost like providing sweets in a sweet shop; you suddenly have an influx of cable," Crowther says.

Trembler alarms and small cameras hidden in the ballast are also being deployed in areas recognised as vulnerable, or have the potential to be attacked in the future. These send information back to the control centre and are used in conjunction with British Transport Police, with whom NR has a close working relationship.

Other surveillance techniques include briefing drivers to be aware of any suspicious lineside activity such as unmarked white vans parked alongside the track, or people on the line who are not wearing high-visibility clothing. With some railway employees and contractors found to be working with thieves, particularly through providing information about where cable might be easily accessible, a culture of vigilance is being enforced within the company. Private security personnel are also being used in conjunction with transport police, taking the responsibility for protection away from maintenance workers.

Technical solutions to increase the difficulty of extracting the cable are also undergoing trials. Steel banding all of the cable is considered a short-term solution that again makes it harder to rip the cable out of the trough and is favoured because it avoids the need to relay the cable. Similarly, Spanish cable, a hardened cable that is very difficult to cut, is being used in hotspot areas, along with fibre optic cable, a cheaper alternative to copper. However, Crowther dismissed the potential to rollout Spanish cable across Britain's 32,000km network.

"For us to put a business case together, a plan to replace all of the cable is not sensible," Crowther says. "It's not so much the cost of those systems it is the implementation and being able to achieve engineering access, because you would be talking about closing the network down in many parts. We already have a major re-signalling programme going on. To disrupt that would be very hard."

Instead she says the long-term solution is in-cab signalling, pointing to the continuing Cambrian Coast ERTMS trial, although with a full deployment still at least 20-25 years away, other solutions have to be found.

The British government's recent decision to set up a taskforce to tackle metal theft was welcomed by the Association of Train Operating Companies (Atoc), but its chief executive, Mr Michael Roberts, says this has to be complemented by legislative action from the government to maximise the effectiveness of NR's efforts and to further deter thieves.

In Belgium copper theft fell by 23% in the first quarter of 2011 despite copper prices soaring to $US 10,000 a tonne in February after a new law required sellers of copper cable to provide personal identification to metal merchants. Failure to comply with this could result in the scrapyard being closed down, or a prison sentence for the seller.

In Britain similar measures are being considered, along with outlawing cash sales at scrapyards. However, scrap merchants have dismissed these proposals because of the harmful impact on their business due to the prevalence and expected increase of illegal scrap metal merchants which would still deal in cash. A trial of a cashless system at one merchant resulted in a 50% reduction in business.

As governments across the world consider how best to deal with cable theft, one thing is certain: they have to act fast and decisively. If the problem is not minimised soon, Roberts and others fear that rail passengers will start to look to other modes due to a perceived lack of reliability, which could be disastrous to rail's reputation.

"Our ability to provide services reliably is fundamental to our ability to attract people to use the railways," Roberts says. "Ensuring that we can tackle cable theft in order to remain a reliable rail network is critical to our ability to meet the wider transport needs of the economy."