Rail commuters disrupted as thieves steal 'poor man's gold'

Thousands of Melbourne commuters had a longer journey to work than normal today because of a problem which is being experienced worldwide, the theft of copper.

The Melbourne thieves targetted cabling between some of the railway stations in the city's west.

Globally the theft of copper is driven by high world prices for the metal.

This morning on the , which cuts through Melbourne's western suburbs thousands of commuters had to get on a bus instead of the usual train, because of some missing cables.

Daniel Hoare is a spokesman for the company which runs the Melbourne rail network.

"We've spent the entire morning to put new cables in those areas," he said.

Mr Hoare says it is not the first time thieves have targeted the rail infrastructure.

"The theft of copper is an ongoing problem, it's obviously a commodity that's sort after.

"We have thieves stealing cables, they've been doing it over a number of years.

"We've noticed a spike of late, we've had two incidents over the last couple of days, and obviously overnight that was a very significant one for us, not being able to run trains the whole morning." Poor man's gold The secretary of the Metal Recycling Industry Association Paul Ryan says copper is now worth between $5,000 and $6,000 a tonne.

He calls it poor man's gold and he says the theft of copper cables from railways is not unusual.

"It's not only typical to Melbourne, it's typical around the world unfortunately," he said.

"If you get on the internet, you'll find it's a problem in the U.S.

and the U.K and each different government has tried different mechanisms for reducing the incidents.

But he concedes the theft of copper is not on the rise in Australia.

Mr Ryan says the industry has close links with police, particularly in Victoria, so any suspicious copper sales can be investigated.

"We've got a network that when we're notified that copper is stolen, police send a notification to dealers, and we've had some successes.

"Crooks have showed up at dealers with some material, the material has been identified, and police are called and the crooks are arrested.

"So the system works, but it only works if material is identifiable." The problem with that system is that any piece of twisted, crushed or melted copper can look just like another one.

Mr Ryan says there is another proposal which would leave a paper trail for sales of scrap copper, but he does not think it will work.

"The New South Wales Attorney's-General department had a meeting two weeks ago to try and address this problem, and one of the things that came out for discussion, was to eliminate the use of cash to pay people," "That's been considered by various governments on and off for some time.

"The problem is that our constitution says that cash is legal tender, it would be quite difficult to enforce it." There is another factor which for most people would act as a deterrent for copper thieves.

"There's no doubt that anybody who steals cables around a railway network is putting their lives at risk," Mr Hoare said.

"It's a very dangerous thing to do, there's very high voltage going through these cables at certain times and they are literally dicing with death."

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