Bombardier Inc.'s high-tech rail project in South Africa has been a popular success, but it has sometimes been ground to a halt by a mundane problem: the theft of copper cables from its railway lines.
The high-speed Gautrain, in which Bombardier is a leading partner, is a $3.7-billion 80-kilometre project to link Johannesburg and Pretoria and the country's main international airport. It is carrying 28,000 passengers a day, and aims to carry more than 100,000 passengers at its peak, linking the two cities in as little as 26 minutes.
Yet since the opening of its Pretoria link in July, this technological marvel has been shut down twice by thieves who stole cables along its rail lines. The shutdown has highlighted the growing problem of cable theft, which can cause havoc to electricity supplies, freight railways, telephone connections and other crucial components of the national infrastructure.
The theft of copper cables, usually for resale to scrap dealers, has become a global epidemic, fuelled by the fast-growing demand of new markets such as China. But the problem is greatest in developing countries such as South Africa, where crime rates are high, law enforcement is weak, and impoverished people can easily turn to crime.
The South African Chamber of Commerce and Industry has even created a monthly report -- the "Copper Theft Barometer" -- to measure the destructive impact of cable theft on the South African economy.
Its latest report says the barometer was at 14.9 in August. This means that the total losses due to cable theft were nearly 15 million rand (nearly $2-million) in August alone. The report also found that copper exports by South African waste and scrap dealers are steadily climbing, reaching about $50-million in July.
Bombardier might be the most embarrassed victim of the cable thieves, but it is certainly not the biggest victim. South Africa's national railway system is affected up to five times a day by cable thefts. Entire neighborhoods of Johannesburg are routinely left in darkness because of cable thefts.
Now the government is getting serious about the problem. It is planning new laws to classify cable theft as a serious economic crime, or sabotage. This would allow the authorities to imprison the cable thieves for 15 years or even life.