Metal thieves in Germany
Why the trains are late
In the wee hours of a recent morning a young man with a rucksack was sauntering along the railway line near Grossbeeren. When stopped by two policemen he told them he had missed his train. Being of a suspicious nature, they asked him to open his rucksack. And, behold, they found clippers,gloves, a torch and 24kg (53lbs) of copper cable. “Ah,” said the young man,“you seem to have caught me.”
Such incidents happen almost daily somewhere along Deutsche Bahn’s 33,500km (21,000 miles) of track. And the thieves are not always unambitious amateurs. Last month some rather more organised criminals lifted 2km of copper wire and cable between Hanover and Hamburg. The line had to be closed for eight hours and 100 trains had to be diverted. The cost hits not only Deutsche Bahn’s bottom line but also its tattered reputation.
Last year was a good one for metal thievery (in Germanyand beyond) because the copper price was so high. Robbers were getting 6 ($7) a kilo. Deutsche Bahn suffered more than 3,000 thefts affecting 11,000 trains and causing 150,000 minutes of delays. Most of the booty is shipped to neighbouring countries. But the odds of being caught are about one in five. And there are plans to collar even more coppersnatchers.
On July 10th Deutsche Bahn and fellow sufferers Deutsche Telekom and RWE, an electricity company, announced an alliance with the Association of German Metal Traders (VDM). They are taking steps to make it harder to unload the loot from railways, telephone wires and power lines.
Since last year Deutsche Bahn has been spraying its cables with “liquid DNA”. Tiny metal DB logos and numbers that cling to the kitand to felons’ tools and fingers, show up under ultraviolet scanners, revealing not only that the goods are hot but also which bit of track they come from.
Problem solved? Not quite. There is still the question of communication across European borders, though Ralf Schmitz of the VDM reckons his bush telegraph will alert traders in German-speaking countries to a new heist within an hour of its discovery. Maybe so, but amazing numbers of trucks laden with copper contraband still seem to rumble unchallenged across Schengen frontiers to lands where German is not spoken.