Copper theft continues to plague Europe’s largest rail operators, causing significant delays and millions of euros in damages to rail infrastructure. With the price of copper on the rise, concerns about the persistence of this issue are mounting.
Copper is a versatile metal widely used for its conductivity in heat and electricity, as well as in various alloys like sterling silver and cupronickel. It occurs naturally and has been utilized by humans since around 8000 BC. It holds the distinction of being the first metal smelted from sulfide ores, cast into shapes using molds, and intentionally alloyed with tin to create bronze.
Copper serves as a crucial component in various railway systems, including signal cables, grounding wires, and power lines. Without it, trains lack the necessary power and communication infrastructure to operate effectively.
The allure of quick profits has driven thieves to target copper, with one tonne fetching around £6,600 (€7,726) in the UK last March. While some stolen goods may not find their way to official recycling facilities, informal scrap yards offer an alternative market for these illicitly acquired metals.
As the price of copper is expected to increase further in the coming years, rail operators are ramping up their defenses. Some European countries have even adopted DNA technology to combat theft, aiming to deter potential perpetrators.
The extent of the problem is evident from data provided by major rail operators across the continent. In the UK, trains faced delays totaling 84,390 minutes in the 2022/23 financial year, costing £12.24 million (€14.33 million), according to figures from Network Rail.
Similarly, in Germany, Deutsche Bahn reported 450 cases of metal theft, affecting 3,200 trains and resulting in €7 million in losses. France’s SNCF noted over 40,000 affected trains, leading to losses exceeding €20 million.
Belgium also experienced a surge in copper theft, with 466 incidents recorded in 2022, marking a 300% increase from the previous year. However, Austria reported minimal instances of theft, attributing its success to proactive measures.
Rail companies have implemented various strategies to tackle the issue, including enhanced collaboration with law enforcement, CCTV surveillance, and the use of drones for improved security. Additionally, DNA technology has emerged as a promising deterrent, allowing authorities to trace stolen copper back to its source.
Despite a decline in theft cases over the past decade, recent upticks in copper prices have raised concerns among rail operators. Analysts predict further price increases, fueled by growing demand from the renewable energy sector, which heavily relies on copper for its infrastructure.
The persistent threat of copper theft poses significant challenges for Europe’s rail network, resulting in substantial financial losses.
However, with continued investment in security measures and innovative solutions, rail companies remain optimistic about mitigating the impact of thefts and minimizing disruptions for passengers.