Disappearance of cable from train station turns spotlight on metal theft

Thousands of rail passengers in Prague have suffered delays this week, following the theft – not once, but twice – of important telecommunications cables. The copper cables were evidently stolen to be sold as scrap metal, for a fraction of their real value. By coincidence, a bill aimed at curbing the all-too-common problem of metal theft has just been passed.

In the early hours of Tuesday morning, thieves stole 15 metres of copper telecommunications cable used to control switches and signals from a tunnel leading from Prague’s main train station, Hlavní nádraží. While they would have received next to nothing for the metal at a scrap yard, thousands of rail passengers had their journeys delayed and disrupted. Radek Joklík is a spokesman for Czech Rail:

“Sixty-three trains were delayed – with those delays in total amounting to 2,370 minutes…The situation was completely back to normal about 5 pm.”

Mr Joklík and his colleagues had to make a similar statement a day earlier, when the theft of 50 metres of cable from the same spot interrupted trains between the main railway station and Prague’s Smíchov station for seven hours.

Czech Television reported that around 4.5 kilometres of copper cable have disappeared from Czech Rails lines so far this month alone.

But metal thieves don’t just target such cables. Two people died stealing scrap iron from a disused factory in Kladno in 2007, in February a four-tonne railway bridge near Cheb disappeared completely, and over 300 bronze plates with the names of Holocaust victims were stolen from Terezín in April.

Those are just the most spectacular examples of what is an-all-too common crime in the Czech Republic. In order to combat it, Czech lawmakers have produced a bill - due to come into effect next year - which aims to make it harder for metal thieves to offload their swag at scrap yards.

The new legislation on waste was passed by the Chamber of Deputies on Tuesday, and now requires the signature of the president. However, it is still to be completed by an Environment Ministry list of what scrap yards may not buy from individuals without checking their ID and keeping a written record.

In the case of some items, such as church fittings, scrap merchants would have to keep a written description. They would also have to hold on to all purchases for at least 48 hours, to allow police to look for stolen goods.