New legislation might be required to deal with the "major problem" of cable theft on the railways, Transport Minister Norman Baker has told MPs.
British Transport Police (BTP) now regarded cable theft, which had resulted in severe delays to passenger services, as second only to terrorism in its list of priorities, Mr Baker told the House of Commons Transport Committee.
He went on: "BTP has indicated that it would be helpful to have new powers. There is a general concern, which I am very happy to share, that the legislation in place isn't designed for the spate of thefts we are seeing."
Mr Baker said that no options had been ruled out, including a possible change to the 1964 Scrap Metal Dealers Act. He said that the rail industry had initially taken the view that it was best not to publicise cable theft to try to avoid "copy-cat activities".
He went on: "It's now a major problem and it's very serious for the rail industry, for passengers and for industry.
"This problem transcends the railway. It has affected motorways, the coastguard and the telecoms industry. The level of theft tends to follow the price of copper and other metals on world markets."
Mr Baker said that a newly-formed cross-ministerial group had already met twice to discuss the problem and has looked at what could be done to issue new guidance to the Environment Agency in terms of looking at scrapyards receiving rail cable.
Mr Baker added that Network Rail (NR) was looking to bury cables in particularly vulnerable areas and making sure that cables were properly marked so they could more easily identified if they turned up at scrapyards.
He also told MPs that it was hoped that NR could keep cable theft-caused disruption to train services to a minimum.
The committee's chairman Louise Ellman MP said that NR had said that cable theft had cost the railways £43 million over the last three years, plus costing the general economy about £16-20 million a year.