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Copper wire thefts threaten trains

(The following report by Mark Povolny appeared at WEAU.com on July 10.)

EAU CLAIRE, Wisc. — Thieves are stealing copper wire along railroad tracks in Jackson County, putting trains and people in danger.

Scrap metal thieves have stolen miles of copper wiring critical to railroad safety. A lot of the wire thieves have cut down is used to alerts train conductors when another train is near-by. Without those wires, railroad companies say it puts everyone at risk.

Deputies believe the copper thieves are using bold tactics in broad daylight, and getting away with thousands of feet of copper worth thousands of dollars. Conductors first reported missing wire about six months ago and the sheriff says the thieves did it again last week.

"We had a recent theft that put us at about 50,000 feet of wire, which translates basically into about 9.5 miles of wire," says Jackson County Sheriff Duane Waldera.

This green wiring is what the thieves are after. It’s used to run red and green lights like this. These lights tell train engineers when another train is on the tracks. Waldera says thieves use a ladder to get to get to the wire, cut it free, and move on to the next pole, over and over.

"It’s a huge concern for the safety of the railroad. If they are cutting the live wire that's a safety device to let the conductors know if there's a train on the track or at least approaching, then it could be a huge crisis. It could be a safety issue for not only the engine and railroad operators, but even the citizens around those areas," Waldera says.

The tracks and wire are private property of the railroad companies. Now they're working with scrap yards in Wisconsin to try to track down the people who bring in the wiring.

"Certainly if we found someone that was attempting to steal copper of hinder the wiring, we would prosecute them to the fullest extent of the law," says BNSF Railroad Spokesman Joe Faust.

Faust says railroad companies do have back-up systems in place if thieves cut the wires down, but it slows down the entire rail system.

Waldera says Jackson County does have some leads. Investigators found a ladder and some copper scraps the thieves left behind, but because so many of the thefts happen in remote areas of the county, he's hoping someone from the public can help them figure out who's responsible. One railroad employee says the problem may be even worse than it seems, because some of the thefts go unreported.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

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