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Zooming in on the railway vandals; OFFENDERS PROMISED A FAST TRACK TO COURT AS OFFICIALS REVEAL HOW COPTER CREW'S SWIVELLING CAMERA CAN HOME IN ON TROUBLE SPOTS OVER A 100-MILE RADIUS.

Byline: SAMANTHA CLARKE

AS POLICE and rail bosses yesterday launched their "eye in the sky" patrols aimed at homing in on young rail vandals at tracks throughout Coventry and Warwickshire, potential offenders were warned that video shots taken from the air could be used as evidence in court.

British Transport Police and bosses of Rail Network are behind Skyhawk - a pounds 1,000-an-hour helicopter tracking operation to keep crime off the tracks.

The launch came just weeks after Rail Network revealed Coventry and Warwick were among the Midlands' top 10 hot spots for trespass, vandalism and other criminal acts.

In Coventry, Coundon Road in particular was highlighted as a black spot, with 25 incidents recorded in the past 12 months.

Warwick was also plagued with 25 incidents in the same period.

As they took to the skies yesterday, the message from police and rail bosses was clear - there is no hiding place for vandals on the tracks.

The pounds 1.8million helicopter is fully equipped with a 360-degree zoom camera with thermal imaging.

It flies at between 750ft and 1,500ft and, on a clear day, the crew of three's visibility radius measures 100 miles.

Once vandals have been spotted on the tracks, the crew can radio colleagues on the ground.

When caught, the youths face possible prosecution - and the prospect of the court being shown photographic proof of their exploits.

The partnership is hoping the new device will not only help catch the criminals, but will also deter vandalism in the first place.

Operation Skyhawk will run until the end of the summer holidays.

Chief Insp Colin Edwards, of British Transport Police, said he was hopeful about the results. He said: "We tested the helicopter initially in the Midlands last year and we were very encouraged by the results, which is why we have decided to use it longer- term this time.

"Prosecutions included one in Coventry where one person was sentenced to five years for committing crimes on the track, and a similar one in Wolverhampton."

Chief Insp Edwards issued a stern message to youngsters and also called for help from parents in reducing crime.

He said: "These youngsters are not only risking their own lives - they are also risking the lives of other people.

"We would ask all parents to make sure they know the whereabouts of their children at all times."

He said he hoped that by using the helicopter, the chances of someone being maimed or killed because of the actions of heedless young vandals would be drastically reduced.

Marie Grimes, rail crime manager at Network Rail, added: "This operation is costing us pounds 3,000 a day, but, in the great scheme of things, it is far less than the pounds 150million that vandalism on the tracks costs each year - not just with damage, but in delays as well."

samantha.clarke@mrn.co.uk

TIMELINE OF TROUBLE ON THE TRACKS

June 2001 - Passengers and crews on two high-speed trains in Nuneaton and north Warwickshire cheated death at the hands of vandals. A rock was hurled through the driver's window of the first train, while the second ploughed into a pile of tyres left on the tracks just outside Atherstone.

July 2001 - The Evening Telegraph launched Keep Off The Tracks in conjunction with the police and Railtrack. The campaign, which highlighted the antics of youngsters on the lines, helped cut rail crime in Coventry and Warwickshire by 53percent.

October 2001 - Police welcomed a seven-year sentence on a Stoke Aldermoor teenager who almost derailed a Silverlink train carrying 400 passengers by placing concrete blocks on the line near the River Sowe.

January 2002 - Railtrack offered pounds 1,000 to help catch vandals who shot out three out of four railway signals at Brandon, putting trains travelling at up to 140mph at risk of crashing.

March 2002 - Stockingford, Nuneaton, was revealed as having the third highest rate of railway vandalism in the UK, with 30 incidents between April 2001 and March 2002. And police announced plans for a "panda" train to patrol Coventry.

February 2003 - A train hit a bicycle deliberately placed across tracks close to Prospect Road in Old Town, Leamington.

CAPTION(S):

EYE IN THE SKY: A bird's-eye view of the city as seen from Skyhawk and (below) the tracks brought close enough to detect any trespassers
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Publication:Coventry Evening Telegraph (England)
Date:Apr 17, 2003
Words:722
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