Copper wire thefts hinder rail services

Posted on June 15, 2012 by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor - Also by this author

Thieves, motivated by the high copper prices offered by scrap dealers, are stealing large amounts of copper wire from transit agencies. Systems such as Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and Seattle’s Sound Transit have suffered hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages because of the pilfering.

At SEPTA, metal scavengers have cut copper wires from tracks and overhead poles, stopping trains, Jeffrey Knueppel, assistant GM and chief engineer, SEPTA, said.

The agency is spending $300,000 to $500,000 a year to repair and replace equipment damaged by the thieves. SEPTA spokesperson Jerri Williams said the agency has experienced several of these incidents over the past few years.

SEPTA has had to convince law enforcement that the thefts compromise safety and damage equipment because often suspects don’t receive severe charges.

“The thing that’s working well is, when we do catch individuals, to make sure that they’re prosecuted fully,” Knueppel said. “We make sure the authorities really understand the potential safety issues when we experience damage in our signal huts. They’re working with us to make sure the punishment matches the crime.”

In particular, SEPTA is working with police on a case in which a person was stealing overhead wires 70 feet in the air and dropping them next to SEPTA station platforms. The thief climbed a pole which had 220,000-volt electrical lines running over the top of the railroad and cut wires for the electric company and the transit system, Knueppel said.

“They’re not only putting others at risk. It’s a very dangerous situation,” Knueppel said. “There’s a lot of current passing through the cables if a trolley or train comes through while they’re cutting or fooling around with them. They can get pretty badly hurt.”

To prevent future thefts, SEPTA has switched to other materials, including Aluminum Steel Reinforced Strand, which has little to no market value, Andy Gillespie, chief engineering officer of power, said. Knueppel added that the agency switched to tamper-resistant screws and fasteners in stations; a less valuable type of cable that can perform the same function; and buried copper bonding wire, or put it inside a sleeve that’s difficult to break into.

Additionally, because many of the thefts are committed overnight, SEPTA is not aware of them until the morning commute. “We think [riders] are going to have a good ride, only to find when the first train in the morning runs, that wires have been stolen and trains are [just] sitting there,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sound Transit recently had copper wire taken during construction of its Link light rail line and from other projects. The most recent theft was of 70,000 pounds, or four miles worth of copper cable. Thieves accessed a concrete vault and ripped the wire from inside an elevated guideway. The theft is the biggest the system has ever dealt with, Bruce Gray, spokesperson, Sound Transit, said. Washington state sheriff’s department detectives told Gray it’s one of the largest copper thefts they’ve ever seen, statewide.

While there was no impact to service, without the cable in the elevated guideway to absorb stray current from the rail, it can get into the concrete and cause damage. “During the time that this was gone, it won’t have impacted the structure,” Gray said.

However, replacing the cable, at about $216,000, not counting labor, is costly.

Sound Transit is looking into providing better security to the affected portion of the guideway.

“Whoever did this had some prior knowledge of the system and knew what they were going after,” Gray said. “The police don’t think this was a typical theft of opportunity. This was likely a much more organized effort to steal from us. These aren’t wires that anyone can see from the outside.”

As Sound Transit designs future elevated guideways or any other infrastructure with wire in it, Gray said, it is taking the incidents into account.

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