Fighting copper theft with smart cable technologies

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Jean Fehlbaum, Nexans vice president of marketing responsible for railway infrastructure projects, outlines two different technical solutions developed to discourage copper theft and to help track down cable thieves and those who deal in stolen metals.

Counting the financial and safety costs of theft

The high value of copper has long meant theft of vital power, signalling and control cables from railway lines has become a lucrative business for both organised criminals and those who sell on stolen metals. Hundreds of such thefts take place across Europe every day, together adding up to thousands of tons of copper and other cable every year.

The cost of replacement alone runs to hundreds of millions of pounds, with replacement costing significantly more than the scrap value of the metal and financial losses from stolen cable are not restricted to replacement.

According to a recent report published, French railway operators were subject to 5,800 hours of delays in just one year and the constant damage to vital rail infrastructure also represents a significant threat to public safety.

Triple challenge

In recognition of the scale and significance of the problem, RFF, France’s state-owned operator of the national railway infrastructure, has a €30m budget for anti-theft measures, including alarm systems, burying cables and police helicopters guarding track from the air. With thousands of passengers affected by delays and trains unable to access main line stations, governments and railway operators alike see protection of rail infrastructure as a top priority.

As one of the world’s leading cable producers, Nexans has been closely involved in analysing the problem of cable theft and identifying how it could be significantly reduced or even eliminated.

This challenge has three main aspects, the first of which is how to make cables a less attractive target for thieves. Secondly, making cable more identifiable if its insulation has been burned off will discourage scrap metal yards from buying stolen cable. Lastly, ensuring compatibility with existing cables will keep installation, maintenance and replacement costs to a minimum.

Making cables a less attractive target

With thieves attracted by the pure copper in cable, an obvious tactic is to reduce the quantity of copper in cable by incorporating less valuable metal or even replacing copper with less attractive aluminium.

However, aluminium’s lower conductivity calls for larger cross-sections, requiring installers and maintenance crews to deal with two different standards. The two standards would also call for two specialist toolkits with dedicated bending tools, lugs and crimping devices. Another drawback is aluminium tends to buckle over time and performs less well than copper under long-term exposure to shocks, vibration and stress in the trackside environment.

To overcome this, Nexans introduced the RHEYRAIL solution for surface-installed grounding wires and rail joiners. Fully compatible with existing installation techniques, RHEYRAIL integrates steel wires in the oversized copper conductor, replacing several copper wires with steel. The steel wires complicate cable cutting, making the cable more difficult to sever. The other benefit of mixing the copper and steel is that the cable’s value on the black market is only a fraction of that of pure copper.

Developed for railways in Germany, the solution is now being deployed in the south of the country and installers and maintenance workers have accepted the new cable with enthusiasm due to its compatibility with existing technology. Rail networks in South America and Scandinavia are now showing an interest in the solution, which can also be applied to metros and railways.

Cable identification

The traditional approach to marking the origin and ownership of railway cable has been to print the rubber insulation with identity markings but thieves easily overcome this by burning off the insulation. Perversely, this also benefits the thieves as it preserves only the pure copper, making the ‘fencing’ process simpler.

The challenge was to develop a near-indestructible form of identification so that potential buyers and third-party scrapyard auditors can be aware of stolen goods. One approach would be to tag the copper with rare earth elements, creating a ‘fingerprint’ but this is complex, expensive and can be difficult to spot.

In contrast, Nexans’ CORE-TAG solution uses a similar principle to the letters running down a stick of rock or the ‘red thread’ or identification markings which run through the fabric of marine ropes. Within the anti-theft cable runs a fire-resistant copper tape intertwined with the strands of the copper conductor. Every 30 cm, a dot-matrix series of perforations spells out an identification code or name, which can be read with the naked eye.

Visual examination of the cut cable will easily identify the presence of the identification tag and only a short length needs to be opened up to read but because the tape is embedded along the entire length of the conductor, it is virtually impossible for a thief to remove.

Not only is the identification tag near impossible to remove and indestructible by fire, but being copper, it also improves the conductivity of the cable. In addition, the CORE-TAG cable is just as easy to handle and install as conventional cables and it uses the same tools and accessories.

The fully patented cable is currently available for grounding cables and can be easily adapted to any conductor (e.g. power or earthing cable) greater than 16 mm2.

Evolution in the copper supply chain

One aspect that cannot be overlooked is copper recycling is a vital element of the copper supply chain and it is very difficult to establish the origin of recycled copper. However, these new technologies offer excellent potential to railway operators to make their rail cables less attractive to steal. They also provide the wider copper supply chain with new tools to identify when stolen copper comes into the eco-system.

But the challenge is not only about finding the solutions to the challenges posed by cable theft. A key task for the industry is to promote and communicate them across the recycling community so that scrap metal traders know what to look for, and also to make it clear to potential thieves that they will find railway cables hard to steal and even harder to dispose of.