Anyone familiar with traveling on Britain’s railways, particularly those old enough to have “enjoyed commuting in the 80’s and 90’s, will be familiar with the seemingly endless list of excuses as to why the 07.35 for London Waterloo is running late for the third time last week. So notorious was this game of dreaming up new excuses that a famous, if tragically short run, TV comedy program called “The Rise & Fall of Reginald Perrin from the 1970’s had as one of many quotes explaining the hero’s late arrival in the office as “Twenty-two minutes late, badger ate a junction box at New Malden that has been repeated down the years in various forms on countless occasions. Indeed collecting quotes made by railways staff for the late arrival of the train is something of a (minor) British past time and definitely a skill required for any foreigner looking to integrate themselves into English society. A few of the choicest examples I came across are swans on the line, insects being washed off the drivers window (40 minutes late, there must have been a lot of insects), excess of weeds on the track, leaves on the track and my favorite – the wrong kind of snow.
So it came as no surprise to see a headline in The Telegraph newspaper regarding train delays even though services have got a lot better in the last few years. On this occasion though it would appear the rail company may have a justifiable reason – yes I was getting to a serious point eventually, for anyone still reading thank you for your patience. Apparently theft of copper cables has become so serious that cable theft cost Network Rail (the company that owns and operates the track network in the UK, £11.75 million ($18m) , of which nearly £8 million ($12m) went to train operators in compensation last year. In the first six months of the year there were 443 separate incidents of theft, a dramatic increase compared to 558 for the whole of last year. One incident alone, near Reading to the west of London, saw 81 trains canceled and 651 others delayed on just one day in August. Network Rail is having to use helicopters and surveillance cameras to try to catch thieves but with some 20,000 miles of track it is a near hopeless task. As metal prices rise, it seems nothing is beyond the pale. Thieves steal lead from church roofs, telephone cables and believe it or not live power cables, but to remove electrical, communications and control cabling from railway tracks where trains can be traveling at up to 100 miles an hour shows a complete disregard for life.
So while we would not make light of the risk posed by cable theft, as an excuse for late trains it doesn’t have a patch on dear old Reggie Perrin who exasperated by repeated train delays arrived late to work yet again with the excuse “Twenty-two minutes late, fed up by train delays, came by bicycle. Slow puncture at Peckham’.