The Guardian joins officers raiding a scrapyard as they try to tackle a huge problem for transport and the economy
The rain had turned to sleet and the wind was howling when British transport police raided Tony Berry's scrap metal yard in Burnley, a modest unit at the end of a parade of terraced houses.
It was a bitterly cold December day. Outside, an old washing machine was on the pavement with a pair of painted Victorian wrought iron fireplaces.
"Have you nowt else better to do?" he asked, anger rising in his voice, as he spotted the team of officers approaching. "Why don't you go out and catch them what's doing this instead of annoying the likes of me?"
He was not that keen on the press, either. He pushed the Guardian photographer and, swearing, threw a metal jerry can towards him. The metal shutters of the scrapyard were pulled down amid a tirade of abuse.
Berry's scrapyard is a mishmash of old copper boilers and tubing, pieces of wire and bits of aluminium teetering precariously in a pile on the ground. There were concerns about health and safety but nothing else was found to be amiss.
Metal theft is a massive problem for transport and the economy: not only does it cause misery for commuters by delaying trains, but there is a huge financial price for Network Rail (NR). It can also cost the lives of thieves trespassing on the railway network to cut cables carrying thousands of volts. In September, Bob Crow, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union, said the problem of cable theft on the railways was escalating out of control. The price of copper has more than doubled since 2009 to more than ?5,000 a tonne and, according to one rail industry estimate, copper theft costs the UK economy ?770m a year. Scotland Yard on Tuesday launched its first dedicated unit to tackle the growing problem of metal theft.
Scrapyards have to be licensed, but it is largely a cash-only trade that can be targeted by criminals seeking to offload stolen cable. The police now regard cable theft as second only to terrorism in its list of priorities.
NR is looking to bury cables in particularly vulnerable areas and to ensure they are marked so they can be more easily identified at scrapyards.
Copper theft has spread from former mining areas in the north-east and Nottinghamshire to London, with commuters on South West Trains and the Stansted Express services among those suffering severe disruption.
The problem goes beyond the transport network. Last week, Llandough hospital in south Wales cancelled orthopaedic and breast surgery operations after cable was stolen from a backup generator. War memorials and church roofs have also been stripped.
So far this month, British transport police officers have carried out 275 inspections of scrapyards, making 15 arrests ? there have been a total of 635 arrests since April.
During a day-long series of raids last week, codenamed Operation Leopard, there were three arrests.
In Bexley in south-east London, ?16,000 worth of BT cable was found with copper earthing straps stolen from a National Grid substation. Lead theft is a particular problem in the West Country, with properties in Ilminster, Somerset having the metal stripped from roofs and churches.
In the Cotswolds, more than 500 manhole and gully covers have been stolen. In Pershore, Worcestershire a resident confronted a suspected burglar who was attempting to steal his antique door knocker. Lord Henley, the Home Office minister for crime prevention, said it is clear legislation dating back to the 1960s is "not sufficient".
Outside Berry's scrapyard, an hour before the raid, a passing Lancashire police patrol car found a man trying to sell a carrier bag of copper and lead that he could not account for.
PC Nigel Keates said: "He said he found it in the street. Well, I've been working these streets for seven years and I can count the number of times on one hand that I've found copper.
"He was obviously trying to make a quick buck and we encouraged him to hand it in as he'd found it."
PC Darryl Grundy, of British transport police, recalls an incident where a man was badly burned at Vulcan village in Merseyside. Most of the skin on his back was burned off. "He was taken to a carwash and hosed down because he was still on fire," he said. "Some weeks later he was back out again doing the same thing." The police ask scrap metal dealers to insist on seeing the seller's ID, to keep proper records of transactions and not to sell copper where identification markings are stripped off. Foulds scrapyard in Fleetwood, Lancashire was also visited by Operation Leopard and nothing untoward was found.
Owner Ian Barnes said he had not seen an increase in people offering scrap metal as a result of the high copper price.
"There's only so much out there," he said. He blamed the media for running a story saying that old copper coins were worth more than their denomination, which led to "every thief" thinking they could profit from metal theft.
Mo Kennedy, who owns Scrapbusters scrapyard in Chorley, Lancashire says her company sells metal on quickly as "it's nearly Christmas and we don't want to be burgled, as we've been targeted a couple of times". The firm recently turned down an aluminium coffin.
Detective Inspector Andrea Rainey of British transport police led Operation Leopard in the north-west. She said: "People think it's a victimless crime and, as vehicles and houses are becoming more secure, petty criminals have to find alternative modus operandi.
"If people enter the railway environment to try to steal cable they are really dicing with death. High-speed trains approach so quickly, they wouldn't be able to hear them and get out of the way. But the railway has failsafe systems to ensure that if things are interfered with, the signals automatically default to red." She added: "It is not a problem that is going to get better in the near future."