Railway cable thefts tripled in 2022, causing extensive delays and cancellations

Railway cable thefts tripled in 2022, causing extensive delays and cancellations
The replacement of aluminium cables to prevent copper cable theft. Credit: Belga/ Nicolas Maeterlinck

Copper cable theft has resulted in delays averaging more than an hour and a half per day. Last year, the number of thefts tripled, triggering a series of actions and measures to prevent them from being stolen.

Last year, Infrabel, the body in charge of railway maintenance, recorded 466 acts of copper cable being stolen from the rail network in Belgium, an increase of more than 300% compared to 2021, when 153 such acts were recorded. In several cases, this resulted in traffic being severely disrupted until the damage is repaired.

Railways in Wallonia were worst affected by these thefts, as more than 83% of recorded incidents took place here (compared to 12% in Flanders and 5% in Brussels), with the majority of thefts concentrated in the region of Charleroi.

Besides the cost of repairing the network after these thefts and causing a delay in ongoing works, the consequences of these thefts weigh heavily on the punctuality of trains, Infrabel noted. In 2022, this resulted in a total of more than 33,000 minutes of train delays.

To counter this crime phenomenon, Infrabel announced on Monday it would be putting its hands together with the Federal Railway Police (SPC) to launch a series of actions to arrest perpetrators across the country, while additional preventative measures will be put in place to better secure the infrastructure.

Additional actions and measures

One decade ago, Belgium put in place a national action plan to combat such thefts in cooperation with ironmongers, who are made aware of the thefts to prevent the cables from being sold. However, thieves can always sell them abroad, making it hard to track this type of robbing.

For some years, Infrabel has been working to replace copper with aluminium, which is less in demand. It is also burying cables as much as possible, but that also makes it more difficult for the maintenance teams.

The SPC will now assist Infrabel by carrying out several specific control operations throughout the year, which will complement the routine patrols and make it possible to "spot suspicious behaviour faster and locate it more accurately." Such actions yield results, as six people have already been caught in the act as a result of these actions since the beginning of January.

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"These operations are also meant to send a clear deterrent signal to criminals who commit such crimes," a statement read. People who steal copper cables risk imprisonment and a heavy fine, as they are usually also prosecuted for "malicious obstruction of train traffic."

Infrabel itself is reinforcing measures to better secure parts of its railway infrastructure by developing a project involving GPS trackers to locate cables in real time when they are moved. It is also engraving the company's name in its cables so that scrap dealers can recognise if thieves try to sell them in Belgium.

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