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British Rail Slowdown Tied to Copper Thieves

British authorities have connected an unusual crime wave in the U.K. to the booming economies in China and India. And they see the crime wave as a serious threat to the British railway system. From London, Paul Burge reports for VOA News.

Rail officials say that last year the theft of copper caused more than 240,000 minutes of train delays. The metal is used in cables that control railway signals. Police say robberies at tracks and depots have increased by almost 500 percent.

The global price of the refined metal has risen five-fold since 2001 and hovers at about $7,500 a metric ton.

British police say they believe the stolen copper is sold to scrap yards, then on to smelters, and is transported to China by ship.

Andy Trotter is deputy chief constable of the British Transport Police. "We can track the rise in crime directly to the price of copper in the world market. So, because there's a big demand across the world, the Chinese and Indian economies are growing hugely, and some strikes in South America, that then results in a criminal somewhere in the north of England deciding to steal some copper."

The ratings company Standard & Poors says the prices for copper and other metals are rising because demand is growing, and new mines and smelters are not producing new supplies.

Anna Campopiano from the London Metal Exchange says China's huge appetite for commodities of all kinds, including copper, is pushing prices forward. "As an emerging economy they're developing their infrastructure at quite a remarkable rate, and that has a huge impact on the demand for metals such as copper"

China is already the world's largest market for copper, accounting for about 20 percent of global consumption

Gillian Moncur works for the Beijing office of CRU Strategies, an international management consultancy. The firm specializes in the mineral industry. Moncur says copper and other metals are being used to feed China's export economy as well as domestic demand, particularly with the Beijing Olympics looming.

"It goes into construction, air conditioners, plumbing tubes, telecom cables, computer circuits, computers, electronics, white goods, all of those across the board are using little pieces of copper."

But British rail passengers are counting on a police clampdown to ensure that some of those little pieces of copper do not come at the expense of British trains.