RAILWAY engineers have been shot at and almost stabbed by ruthless thieves intent on stealing copper cable from South Yorkshire’s vandalised tracks, The Star can reveal.
South Yorkshire has been branded a national ‘hotspot’ for criminals who target cables which control signals and points in the hope of cashing in on the high value of scrap metal.
Theft numbers across the county are up by a quarter on the year before.
At least two engineers employed to make repairs to the blighted railway network have been shot at while trying to get track back up and running. One worker was even warned he would be stabbed.
Engineers say the problem is spiralling to such an extent their workload has multiplied.
Last year there were 130 incidents of cable theft - a 23 per cent jump on the year before.
Chris Blythen, who repairs vandalised tracks in South Yorkshire, said: “There’s one area around the Tinsley East junction in Sheffield where the number of thefts is in double figures. It was done twice last week.”
Engineer John Smith, a member of Network Rail’s local fault and maintenance team, described the risks workers run in repairing the tracks.
“One colleague was shot, another was shot in the back with an air rifle, and another was threatened to be stabbed,” he said.
But the cable thefts can be potentially deadly not just for the rail network employees but for the thieves themselves.
During one late night call-out for workers to replace a length of copper cable stolen in a raid, a thief fell out of a tree he had climbed to avoid detection.
“I was standing there, waiting in the pitch black, and the cable thief fell out of the trees,” said Mr Smith.
Mr Blythen added: “In one case it looked like a theft had caused some kind of explosion, so the police were phoning up local hospitals asking if they had treated anyone for burns.
“But it’s going to continue. If the police catch someone, there’s another 50 people waiting to do it instead.”
He said the scale of the problem is taking its toll on staff.
“I get home at around 9.30pm and I’m back at work early the next morning. It’s really hard work. In the last three weeks, we’ve been getting dragged away from other jobs a lot to cover these faults.
“It used to be once every now and again, but recently there is just so much happening and there is not enough manpower.
“At Tapton, near Chesterfield Station, cable was taken from the same place three days in a row until they caught him, and the cable was only about a metre long.”
Police in South Yorkshire hold regular operations aimed at combating the theft of scrap metal across the county.
They regularly set up road blocks to check what loads vehicles are carrying, and they also work with scrap metal dealers to ensure they are not receiving stolen goods.