Insurance claims for metal thefts across the country have skyrocketed from about 13,000 from 2006 to 2008 to about 25,000 from 2009 to 2011, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau, which tracks such thefts, though not specifically for rails. Nearly 96% of the more recent claims were for copper.
Along New York City's 840 miles of subway tracks, there have been a dozen such rail thefts in the past year.
In the May 26 heist in the Howard Beach section of Queens, the rubber-shrouded cable had an estimated combined weight of 1,500 pounds that could fetch about $4,500.
New York transit police would not speculate on whether the caper could have been an inside job, but it appeared to have been pulled off over at least a couple of nights by people who had enough knowledge of the system to avoid getting caught or "fried."
They targeted a stretch of track not covered by security cameras, next to a parking lot. Investigators found a hole in the fence they believe the thieves may have used to enter the tracks, then to flee. The culprits also apparently tampered with a nearby electrical box.
Sgt. Kevin Cooper, a veteran investigator on the case, said trains didn't stall immediately because redundancy in the power system allows them to keep moving for possibly another day after copper is removed.
There are other risks. If electrical current can't complete a circuit, it will seek another route, sometimes damaging the signal system. And if a train's brakes go into sudden emergency mode, riders can suffer injuries.
While police seek suspects, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority that runs the subways is installing more high-intensity lighting and surveillance technology in vulnerable locations.