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.