Invisible New Weapon German Rail to Use Chemical Markers to Combat Metal Theft

Rising commodity prices have prompted thieves to target copper cables and other metal parts used by railways, forcing interruptions in train service in Germany and other European countries. Now, new invisible markers may help German rail get the upper hand.

By Alison Kilian

New technology may help Deutsche Bahn in its ongoing battle against metal theft.
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New technology may help Deutsche Bahn in its ongoing battle against metal theft.

German trains, as everyone knows, have the reputation for being among the most punctual in the world. But that track record is increasingly in danger. With more and more track-side cables and metal parts being stolen and sold by thieves on the scrap metal market, travelers have been facing frequent cancellations and delays.

Now, though, the country's rail operator, Deutsche Bahn, is preparing to fight back. And it is using a weapon so advanced, it's invisible.

Liquid forensic markers, which are detectable only under a special light, will be applied to part of the railway's metal infrastructure, such as the valuable copper cables, the company announced earlier this week.

If those cables were to be stolen and then later resurfaced, the code in the liquid markers would allow police to pinpoint exactly where they came, a vital step for criminal investigators.

Deutsche Bahn officials would not give out details for security reasons. "That would make it too easy for the thieves," spokesperson Monika Bloch told SPIEGEL ONLINE. But the company did say it plans to increase uniformed and undercover security personnel to help combat the theft, which increased by 40 percent over the past year, and caused about €10 million ($14 million) in damages.

Cashing in on Copper

Climbing world commodity prices, which have sharply driven up scrap metal prices, are partly to blame for the jump in crime. Copper prices on the international market have more than tripled since 2009, rising from approximately $3,000 (€2,100) to $10,000 per ton while steel has nearly doubled in price.

Germany is not the only country facing an increase in railway metal theft -- and it's not the first to turn to chemical coding as a means of protecting its rail system from metal-snatchers. The British rail operator Network Rail is already seeing positive results from a similar initiative it launched last year in partnership with a forensic marking product called SmartWater.

SmartWater is invisible to the naked eye and can only be seen under ultraviolet light, making it nearly impossible for thieves to tell if the metals they are stealing are marked or not. It is available in more than one billion different combinations of chemical codes and is extremely difficult to remove. Criminals who do try to remove it often end up transferring traces of the incriminating marker onto their hands and clothing, according to the company.

Success in London

In a presentation at a "metal summit" of the German Federal Police and Deutsche Bahn in Berlin on June 27, Network Rail managers shared their SmartWater success story with their German counterparts.

In 2010, Network Rail applied SmartWater to sections of the London North Western (LNW) Route, a problem area particularly hard hit by metal theft. They marked each kilometer of cable with a different code of the forensic fluid. The British Transport Police also visited local scrap dealers and disseminated information about the initiative, encouraging what Network Rail sees as shifting attitudes on the part of local metal dealers.

SmartWater CEO Phil Cleary told SPIEGEL ONLINE that reported incidents of theft on that route are down 35 percent from this time last year. "This is significantly against trend and the result of hard work, careful planning, and the implementation of a structured crime deterrence program," he said.

Network Rail representatives also said at the meeting in Berlin that the drop in theft along the LNW route countered overall trends in Britain. They cited a SmartWater success story in which three men standing trial at Snaresbrook Crown Court were convicted after the SmartWater fluid helped link them to the theft of British Telecom (BT) communications cables. The thieves, who had pretended that they were officially sent to remove the cables, were each sentenced to at least 12 months in prison.

Though Deutsche Bahn remains mum on just what technology they plan to use, a SmartWater spokesman told SPIEGEL ONLINE that his company has been contacted by the German railway operator.


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