The Government has been pressed to take urgent action to counter the growing problem of metal theft, including giving police extra powers, after a report detailed the mounting cost to the railways of stolen cable.
The Transport Select Committee said regulation of the scrap metal industry should be reformed, and a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railway introduced, following a huge increase in incidents which led to 3.8 million passengers having their journeys delayed or cancelled last year at a cost of more than £16 million to Network Rail (NR).
Cable theft on the railways has increased "sharply" in recent years, with up to eight incidents every day, the MPs said in their report. The problem had cost NR £43 million over the past three years as crews have to be diverted from other work to replace stolen cable.
The "weak link" in combating the crime was the scrap metal industry, with police describing the 1964 scrap Metal Dealers Act as "Steptoe and Son" legislation, said the report.
Committee chairman Louise Ellman said: "Cable theft on the railway must be tackled with more urgency. Cable theft from the rail network is part of an increase in metal theft across the country made easy by the way in which stolen metal can be sold to scrap metal dealers.
"Current legislation for regulating scrap metal dealers is out of date. We need urgent reform to improve the audit trail generated by the scrap metal industry so that criminals selling stolen metal into the trade can be identified much more easily.
"The Government should introduce a new offence of aggravated trespass on the railway to help deter cable thieves. The British Transport Police should be given new powers so that officers can enter both registered and unregistered scrap metal sites along with additional resources to carry out their enforcement work."
The MPs said the Government should test the use of cashless trading in the scrap metal industry, and called for a number of measures to tackle the problem on the railways. NR should also make cable more difficult to steal, while train operators should not be allowed to profit from the problem through compensation arrangements, it was urged.
Rail Minister Norman Baker said: "Many of the recommendations are already being taken forward by the Government and the rail industry. The metal theft task force announced in the Autumn Statement is already getting under way to target the thieves and those who trade in stolen metal.
"We are also examining other options, including legislation to tighten the regulation of the scrap metal industry."