A CABLE thief who targeted the East Coast rail line is today starting a jail sentence after a judge said "the public are fed up with having their rail journeys disrupted by people who steal cable".

Network Rail had to shut down the East Coast Main Line to repair the damage done by Kevin Needham, 47, during three visits to a busy railway junction near Selby, said Reginald Bosomworth, prosecuting.

The railway company had buried specialised copper cable underground and put ballast over it but on one of his visits, the 47-year-old thief got away with 22 metres of cable. He did not succeed in getting cable on the other visits. It cost Network Rail more than £71,00 to restore the railway equipment including the shutdown.

"This was a relatively sophisticated operation requiring a degree of knowledge and a degree of expertise," the barrister told York Crown Court on Friday.

British Transport Police (BTP) searched Needham's vehicle after one of the incidents and found gloves, hacksaw blades, and an electric current tester, and he was charged. His actions caused tens of thousands of pounds costs to the rail industry in delays which affected lines between London and the north.

Recorder Mark McKone said: "The public are fed up with having their rail journeys disrupted by people who steal cable to make a few pounds. The courts are required to send out the message people who steal cable from railways lines will go to prison immediately."

He jailed Needham for nine months. Needham, of Great North Road, Woodlands, Doncaster, pleaded guilty to two attempted thefts on September 25 and October 29 last year and theft on 19 October, the offence that led to the railway being closed.

His barrister Victoria Smith-Swain said he was remorseful for the effect on the travelling public of his crimes and that prison would cost him his job as a warehouseman and his accommodation.

The thefts had been suggested to him by an accomplice who had also been seen on railway CCTV with him.

Mr Bosomworth said there was evidence of him selling other copper cable as scrap metal.

Detective Inspector Mick Dawes, of BTP, said: "Strong evidence, which included the images captured on the covert camera, items recovered in his car and at the scene, and tactics deployed by officers in connection with Network Rail staff, clearly linked Needham to the offences and left him with no option but to plead guilty.

"Cable doesn’t really have any real value to thieves or anyone outside the railway industry, as scrap metal dealers are highly unlikely to accept any cable or pay minimal costs in return. Yet the cost to the industry to replace the stolen and damaged cable is extremely high. Stealing railway cable is also incredibly dangerous and anyone seeking to do so risks serious injury – or even death – through electrocution."