Copper Thieves Rip Metal From Train Tracks, Traffic Lights

Bandits capitalizing on high price of copper steal from public infrastructure.

Dec. 8, 2011— -- Copper thieves swept through Northern California over the weekend, stripping valuable metal from train tracks in three different counties.

Bay Area Rapid Transit officials said they are still looking for the individuals responsible for metal thefts in Oakland, San Francisco County and San Mateo County.

"Just [Tuesday] at four in the morning, one of our workers discovered two 20-foot sections with copper cable missing," said James Allison, a communication officer for BART.

On Sunday, thieves went as far as to steal copper cable from tracks while a train was running. The operator was forced to stop the train and contacted BART police. The man escaped, and BART officials later discovered copper cable missing.

"I don't know why people would risk their lives to rip off taxpayers," said Allison. "It requires us to go out and replace the cables overnight when the trains aren't running. It hasn't delayed any trains, but it is a cost in terms of material and staffing to replace the cable."

The theft of copper and other valuable wiring material has become a problem across the country as the price of scrap metal has soared, raising the incentive to thieves.

According to Allison, thieves have stolen approximately $90,000 worth of metal from BART in 2011.

On Friday, "a BART officer came across two individuals and a truck. The truck looked suspicious but he was unable to definitely tie them to the truck," said Allison. "All he got was their information but he had to release them."

The city of Vallejo, Calif., which recently emerged from bankruptcy, has spent $200,000 to replace city copper assets this past year -- primarily repairing signals and street lights.

Since the thefts, officials started posting signs around Vallejo saying, "Signal lights are non-functioning due to copper wire theft."

"First of all, it was to inform the people why the street lights or the signals were not working," said Mike Schreiner, assistant maintenance superintendent for the city of Vallejo. "A lot of people were under the impression that the city didn't realize they weren't working. Once we told them, they understood."

Since May, there have been 77 locations in Vallejo affected by the thefts. Within those locations, officials say there has been anywhere from three to 20 street lights and/or signals affected.

As for the reason behind the thefts, Schreiner said it's partly because of the rise in price of copper and the recent recession.

"I believe that's a part of it. I think it's a quick easy way for people to make money," said Schreiner.

While Northern California has been hit hard most recently, officials agreed the thefts are something that has been happening for years around the U.S.

"It's a national epidemic, so we're not the only city experiencing this," said Schreiner. "You can call any city and they have been a victim of copper theft. It has put a great strain on our resources to not only replace the stolen wire but to also complete our other tasks."

Recent projects and repairs have been delayed in order to prioritize parts of the city for emergency repairs.

"People have called to get their street lights repaired, and we've had to put those off because we had to replace stolen wire in a school area or high traffic flow," said Schreiner. "So yes, it has affected our normal operation tremendously."

As the city of Vallejo has been stripped of valuable resources, it is looking to other cities for help.

"We have shared with other cities because we believe that we have limited accessibility to some of the wire," said Schreiner. "We're not just sitting back and letting this happen. We've come up with alternatives."

Schreiner said the city has also increased security measures as an effort to stop the thefts.