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GPS to catch Metro copper thieves

Metro will trial the use of GPS tracking nanotechnology to catch copper thieves who cost the rail operator about $1 million a year and shut down railway lines, causing immense disruption to commuters.

Tiny GPS units will be embedded in copper cabling at some of the most vulnerable points of the rail network, which will enable Metro to track where copper that is stolen from signalling cables or overhead wires ends up.

The nanotechnology trial follows a recent spate of copper theft on the network, most recently on the Dandenong line on Tuesday, which caused major train delays to an estimated 50,000 commuters in the morning peak.

Thieves cut through live overhead cables overnight, stealing an estimated $600-$700 worth of copper. The theft cut power along part of the line and forced Metro to suspend services between Dandenong and Westall stations, delaying passengers on the Cranbourne and Pakenham lines.

Due to the number of affected commuters, Metro was unable to organise enough replacement buses to transport everyone who had been delayed.

Metro chief executive Andrew Lezala said the theft was a foolish and desperate act.

"This is a really stupid act by what can only be desperate people, to try to steal live cables from six metres up in the air for about $600 worth of copper," Mr Lezala said.

Since 2012, copper theft has become rampant, Mr Lezala said. There were 41 incidents of copper wire theft in 2012 and there have been about 20 so far this year.

Public Transport Victoria estimates train delays from copper theft have already cost travellers more than $3 million so far this year from lost time at work.

"In 2012, the value of the time that passengers have lost due to copper theft is estimated to be worth around $3 million," said Public Transport Victorian spokeswoman Andrea Duckworth. "This year to date, the value of the time passengers have lost due to copper theft is estimated to already have exceeded $3.2 million.

"A longer term and bigger negative impact of public transport unreliability caused by vandalism is reduced economic productivity, although this is much more difficult to quantify," Ms Duckworth said.

Metro has also used a helicopter with infra-red vision to try to catch copper thieves, but with little success. Mr Lezala said use of the helicopter had not yet led to an arrest for copper theft, although it had helped catch graffiti vandals.

It costs Metro about $20,000 each time it sends a chopper into the sky, Mr Lezala said.

Some copper cables have also been replaced with cheaper aluminium, although Mr Lezala said it was "just too expensive and time consuming" to consider replacing all the copper on the network.

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