Cable theft on the railway - Transport Committee Contents

2  Cable theft on the railway

Scale of the problem


5. As figure 1 shows, cable theft has been increasing in frequency since 2004/05. The incidence of cable theft has "accelerated sharply" over the past few years.[5] There are now an average of six to eight incidents a day related to cable theft on the rail network.[6]

6. Cable theft is not a new problem for the rail industry. In 2008 the NAO highlighted cable theft as a cause of delays on the rail network and noted this problem had worsened since 2006.[7] Indeed, Norman Baker MP told us "it has been an issue for some time and the industry initially took the view that it was best kept quiet".[8]

Figure 1 Graph showing the increasing number of cable theft incidents since 2004/05 (line) and the corresponding increase in the amount Network Rail has paid in compensation to train operators as a result of these incidents (bar).[9]


7. Alongside the increasing frequency of cable theft, there has been a shift in its geographic distribution. Cable theft had previously been concentrated in the north east of England, with fewer incidents elsewhere in the country. The British Transport Police (BTP) told us that the north east is "the epicentre of metal theft as far as the railway is concerned."[10] Whilst cable theft is still more prevalent in the north east, it is no longer so geographically focused. Figure 2 highlights the changing distribution of cable theft across the UK from 2006/07 to 2011/12, illustrating what Network Rail described as a "migration of metal theft further south".[11]

Figure 2 Graphs showing the incidence of cable theft, broken down by region. Data provided by Network Rail show the total number of incidents in 2006/07 was 538 and in 2011/12 was 688.[12]

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Costs of cable theft


8. Direct costs of cable theft to the rail industry arise from track maintenance, replacing stolen cable and extra staffing requirements. In addition, if delays attributable to Network Rail exceed a certain threshold, it is required to compensate train operating companies for the disruption. The increasing cost to Network Rail of compensation payments to train operators due to delays caused by cable theft since 2004/05 is shown in figure 1. In the period from 2008/09 to 2010/11, Network Rail estimated that it had paid out almost £43 million in direct costs as a result of cable theft.[13]


9. Witnesses told us of the broader financial impact associated with cable theft and its disruption to the transport network.[14] For example, ATOC estimates that each year there may be an indirect cost to the economy of £16-20 million arising from train delays.[15] However, we were also told that such estimates of the broader economic effect of rail disruption from cable theft are difficult to state with any accuracy.[16]

Effects of cable theft


10. ATOC estimates that around 3.8 million passenger journeys were delayed or cancelled as a result of cable theft in 2010/11, with incidents in this period having caused over 360,000 delay minutes.[17] Research by Passenger Focus indicates that rail punctuality is the single biggest driver of overall satisfaction with rail services,[18] and this is undermined by the disruption caused by cable theft. In addition to delaying journeys, disruption also suppresses demand, as passengers switch to other modes of transport. ATOC told us "there is a clear link between reliability and our ability to attract people on to the railways"[19] and that approximately 500,000 passenger journeys were not taken last year due to this suppressed demand.[20]

11. Network Rail provided us with information about the amount of compensation paid to train operators under Schedule 8 of the track access agreement for disruption to the rail network. The table below indicates the increasing costs to Network Rail over recent years as a result of cable theft (table 1).[21]

Table 1 Costs to Network Rail from cable theft-related compensation payments to train operators.
Financial Year Delay minutesCompensation cost (Schedule 8) Total Direct Cost to NR (estimate)
2008/09283,167 £7,858,516£12,264,682
2009/10321,570 £10,931,350£13,961,998
2010/11365,265 £12,137,220£16,510,663
Total970,002 £30,927,086 £42,737,343

12. In addition to these arrangements, passengers who suffer delays to their journeys may be eligible to claim compensation for this disruption from the train operators. The manner in which this compensation is administered depends principally upon the franchise agreement relating to each train operator, but ATOC told us that train operators generally provided "more generous compensation during delay than the strict letter of the rules requires them to".[22] However, ATOC was unable to enlighten us as to the amount of compensation that train operators paid to their customers and how this compares to the amount the operators themselves received under Schedule 8. There should be greater clarity in compensation arrangements so it can be demonstrated that train operators are not profiting from the disruption caused by cable theft. We recommend that the Office for Rail Regulation works with the parties to secure open publication of these data. In our view, train operators should ensure that all eligible passengers receive the delay compensation to which they are entitled and we call on ATOC to undertake work into how this could be achieved. We recommend that the Government presses ATOC to carry out and publish this work.


13. The performance of rail freight services is equally affected by the disruption caused by cable theft. Rail freight operators told us that they have experienced over 110,000 delay minutes due to cable theft over the past year.[23] Such delays may be compounded for freight services by the prioritisation of passenger transport and the additional costs associated with performance penalties to customers or delays in forward distribution.[24] Freight operators also told us there is a reputational cost to their business, as increasing delays make transporting freight by rail seem less reliable.[25]


14. There are various risks posed to offenders, rail staff and passengers as a result of cable theft: ten people have been killed on the railway during the past year as a result of metal theft-related incidents.[26] Offenders risk their own safety by handling cable which may be live and vehicles or equipment left by the track could prove hazardous. In general witnesses told us that cable theft was not a safety issue for passenger services, as signals are designed to fail-safe and turn red to stop trains if disruption occurs.[27] However, there are issues for passenger safety if passengers attempt to exit stopped trains. We heard from the Minister that "there are existing measures on the railway which apply where trains can safely be moved under caution"[28] that are being looked at in order to help passengers who are stopped near a station to complete their journey. We welcome Government measures to help stop passengers from being stranded in trains near a station. However, passenger safety should be a priority, and we note that the Office for Rail Regulation highlighted the potential for greater human error during these procedures.[29] We recommend that the Department for Transport inform us of the changes it intends to make to current practices which would enable stranded passengers to be taken safely to stations through red lights during periods of disruption.

5   Ev 21 para 6. Back

6   Q 2. Back

7   National Audit Office, Reducing passenger rail delays by better management of incidents, HC 308, 14 March 2008, p12 and p36. Back

8   Q 95. Back

9   Adapted from data in Ev 26. Back

10   Q 70. Proposed explanations for this trend were outlined in Ev 37 para 1.3. Back

11   Q 12. Back

12   Adapted from data in Ev 26. Back

13   Ev 21 para 2. Back

14   Ev 22 para 14. Back

15   Q 36. Back

16   Ev 21 para 14. Back

17   Ev 29. Back

18   Passenger Focus, Delays and disruption, rail passengers have their say, December 2010. Back

19   Q 37. Back

20   Ibid. Back

21   Table adapted from Ev 21 para 7. Back

22   Ev 28. Back

23   Ev w1 para 2. Back

24   Ev 23 para 22. Back

25   Ev w5, Ev w22. Back

26   Briefing cable theft, RAIL, 682, p43. Back

27   Ev w1 para 6. Back

28   Q 123. Back

29   Ev w22. Back

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Prepared 26 January 2012