A mystery saboteur with a grudge is behind attacks on the train network that have caused millions of pounds worth of damage and commuter misery. Now a price has been put on his head and the race is on to stop him before he brings death to the line
IT WAS a story to bring a resigned sigh of recognition from every longsuffering train commuter in the land.
On BBC Radio 4's Home Truths programme, passenger Sue Fox described the almost surreal experience she endured on a recent journey. It entailed six cancelled trains, five changes of platform, 22 flights of stairs and 11 charges along the concourse at Birmingham New Street in the space of 90 minutes.
With admirable good humour, she thanked the station staff for "the most arduous passenger workout in the country".
The cause of that episode, however, is anything but a laughing matter to the rail operating companies and police in the West Midlands.
The recent appalling disruption to services has a deeply disturbing origin. And the greatest fear of those investigating is that it could ultimately lead to death on the line. A systematic campaign is being carried out by one man who stalks the network around Birmingham in the dead of night with a box of matches in his hand and a grudge in his heart, setting fire to signal boxes.
Targeting his attacks where they will cause maximum disruption, the rail wrecker has struck at a dozen locations, costing the industry GBP20million, forcing the cancellation of hundreds of trains and bringing frustration and misery to hundreds of thousands of passengers.
As all the signals on the section of rail affected turn red when a box goes up in flames, there has been no threat to passenger safety so far but Network Rail is desperate to catch him before the campaign escalates further and is offering a reward of GBP50,000 for information leading to his capture. British Transport Police believe the saboteur has inside knowledge of the rail system and where CCTV cameras are and is therefore probably someone who has worked on railway maintenance and maybe still does.
One motive being investigated is that a former Railtrack worker who lost his savings when the company was forced into administration is taking revenge on the company's successor.
A team of 25 detectives is working full-time on Operation Dart, trawling through lists of railway workers. Detective Chief Inspector John Sidebottom, leading the hunt, says: "There has been no threat to safety so far but we are concerned that it might escalate to sabotage which is life-threatening." The rail wrecker appears to be getting nothing out of his antics except the satisfaction of creating chaos. Attacks on companies, usually by tampering with their products, frequently turn out to be carried out by a disgruntled former employee but they are virtually always done for money.
Among the most notorious British cases was Rodney Whitchelo, a former policeman turned extortionist, who was jailed in 1989 for putting razor blades in jars of Heinz baby food.
Though that was potentially horrific, even more serious was the case of Edgar Pearce, dubbed the "Mardi Gra bomber", whose attacks caused injuries to staff and customers of Barclays Bank and Sainsbury's.
Beginning his four-year campaign in 1994 after a row with his bank, Pearce switched to the supermarket after he realised he was not going to get any money. He planted 36 devices before he was caught in a police sting and was jailed in 1999 for 21 years.
By contrast, the rail wrecker has made no effort to communicate blackmail demands, leaving his pursuers puzzled over his motive. Police have employed an offender profiler and a geographic profiler to help identify the kind of person they are looking for and where he might live but this task is made even harder by the fact that he operates over a 50-mile radius in the Midlands, mostly east of Birmingham.
He began his operation in June 2004, cutting signal cabling alongside the track north of Kingsbury. A week later, he struck four times in the same night, cutting cables at Kingsbury and setting fire to signalling equipment at three other locations.
ALL the attacks have taken place near access gates to the track used by maintenance workers. The gates are normally locked but there are thought to be about 10,000 keys in circulation among rail workers.
In some of the attacks, cables are understood to have been removed from lineside boxes and severed before being replaced making it difficult for engineers to locate the fault.
Initially the saboteur broke open the signal boxes but later began using a key which opens them all. He has struck on different days of the week and at different times, though mostly after the trains have stopped running.
After eight attacks in six weeks last year, he mysteriously stopped and the system returned to normal. But when a signal box went up in flames in Kitts Green on September 8 this year and another at Water Orton station in Warwickshire the following night, police and railway operators realised with sinking hearts that he was back.
Those two attacks affected 150 services and caused 15,000 minutes of delays to trains through the Midlands.
On September 26, six lineside location boxes near Small Heath were set ablaze, knocking out the signalling along 20 miles of the line and causing prolonged delays to commuters travelling from 22 railway stations.
With the line through Small Heath closed completely for 10 days, 1,500 passengers had to be diverted on a circuitous route, including a bus journey of about seven miles.
THE most recent attack was a fire in a brick-built signal relay room at 2am in the Rugeley area on the West Coast main line, which resulted in nearly 160 trains being cancelled and more than 25,000 minutes of delay for nearly 1,000 trains.
Police have interviewed more than 300 people and Network Rail has written to all current and former staff in the West Midlands appealing for information. The company has also installed extra CCTV cameras and deployed a helicopter with heatseeking equipment on night-time patrols of key signal junctions.
A spokesman for Virgin Trains, the operating company which along with Central Trains has been most affected, said yesterday: "It's very difficult for us to think of any way we can help combat it. This person is being extremely selfish and very unfair to anyone who travels by train.
"In the first three days alone after the last attack, we cancelled 115 trains and there were many others which didn't do their whole journey. We have had to use buses for parts of journeys.
"Obviously, passengers are not happy but they are aware of the reason for the problem and that it is not of our making. We are grateful to them for the patience and understanding they have shown." So what could have caused the well of bitterness that is driving the rail wrecker to create such commuter chaos? According to forensic psychologist Mike Berry, senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, who has helped police draw up offender profiles, it is definitely the work of a seriously angry man.
"It is an act of aggression and it is personal, " he says. "It is not the act of some kid, who would have done something spectacular to attract attention, nor is it likely to be a tryout for an act of terrorism, as that would only take one or two attacks to make sure it worked, not 12.
"This is very methodical, carefully planned and controlled but not showy.
He travels quite a distance so he is pretty determined. I should think he is in his 30s, probably single and living alone. He may have stopped between June 2004 and September this year because he had a girlfriend or something else in his life that distracted him, or he may have been in prison.
"He has probably lost something, quite likely his job. Or he is maybe someone who is involved in one of those small private railways and who resents the giant Network Rail.
"My guess would be that he is still employed on the railways, or has been very recently, which gives him up-todate knowledge of how the system works. He may even wear the proper protective clothing when he goes on his arson raids so that no one would take much notice if they see him." The saboteur may have graduated from cutting cables to setting fire to them because heat damage takes longer to repair, according to Lynsey Gozma, a forensic psychologist who specialises in arson at the University of Surrey.
"He may be acting in revenge for a real act of injustice or just a perceived one. He will get a sense of power and control from being able to deal Network Rail a substantial hit financially and to its customers' loyalty. The best way of catching him is probably the geographic approach studying the pattern of attacks to figure out where he might live and work." Ironically, the rail wrecker is conducting his campaign at a time when a co-ordinated, industrywide approach to improved security has succeeded in significantly reducing vandalism on the network.
Spreading the message to schools that railway lines are dangerous has also made an impact.
There were 610 acts of vandalism in 2003-4, a 39 per cent drop since the turn of the century, though the crime still accounts for 55 per cent of all serious rail accidents.
DCI Sidebottom calls the frustrating investigation a "cat and mouse" game. If that's so, the rail wrecker is a mouse that roars, sending thousands of commuters like Sue Fox scuttling round stations and shunting all over the Midlands in diverted trains and buses at his slightest whim.
And the longer he remains free, the more dangerous he could become.
<<The Express -- 11/17/05>>