A GANG of thieves who stole copper cable in night time raids on a railway line near Droitwich, cost a rail company more than £220,000, a court heard.

The gang got access through farmers fields and by cutting through wire fences in a series of raids between May and October last year causing massive delay and disruption for passengers, Worcester Crown Court was told.

Over £120,000 was paid out in compensation to passengers who suffered delays across the network and the rest of the money was the further cost to Railtrack of replacing the cable.

Wayne Buckley was a "hired hand," the court heard, and was the only member of the gang to be before the courts. He pleaded guilty to conspiracy to steal cable from railway lines.

Michael Conry, prosecuting, told the court there had been eight thefts from May to October last year on the line between Kidderminster and Droitwich.

Buckley had been present on five of them and had been traced through phone records and his DNA found on bolt cutters left at the scene. He was also seen on CCTV at a petrol station near one of the incidents.

Mr Conry said up to 180 metres of three core power cable had been cut on each occasion and this set off a danger alert because of its effect on signalling. On one occasion, a total of £53,000 had been paid in compensation through one stoppage alone. The value of the stolen copper was not known.

Michael Aspinall, defending, said Buckley was a "hired hand" who was paid a wage by those who planned the thefts. He said the 29-year-old had moved to Manchester to get away from associates in the Dudley area but while he was back visiting family, he had been recruited by the gang. His partner, who has since died, was seriously ill at the time and he had been using drink and drugs over a difficult period.

Recorder Richard Burns said the courts would have given the main gang members five years for the crime.

"You have got involved in a crime which is very prevalent here," he told Buckley, of Wetherall Street, Levenshulme, Manchester. "It causes huge expense to Railtrack and massive disruption out of all proportion to the amount of copper stolen."

He accepted Buckley was a minor member of the gang and gave him a two year jail sentence suspended for two years with supervision and 200 hours of community service.