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Theft of copper cable a commuter nightmare on NYC subways

NEW YORK - Subway service in New York City was disrupted for hundreds of thousands of commuters Wednesday because of a massive theft of copper cable from train tracks, transit officials said.

The theft of 500 feet of cable forced the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to suspend train service entirely between the Rockaway Boulevard and Broad Channel stations in Queens and replace it with shuttle buses during the morning rush. The cable was stolen from about 12 locations along the tracks, the MTA said.

Some signal equipment and track components were also damaged by electrical current that could not flow through the cable, officials said.

The crime caused delays and overcrowding along the entire length of the heavily used A and C lines, which carry 775,000 riders a day, the MTA said.

The theft was discovered late Tuesday when a train lost power north of the Howard Beach station in Queens. Crews brought in a train behind it, and an estimated 150 passengers had to walk through the trains to get back to the station.

"We are working closely with the NYPD Transit Bureau to help them investigate this crime and identify the culprits responsible," New York City Transit President Carmen Bianco said.

A state lawmaker who represents the area where the thefts occurred wrote to MTA Chairman Thomas Prendergast demanding an investigation.

"I am alarmed by reported security breaches along the A train and the failure to put in place effective alternative travel plans for our families," Assemblyman Philip Goldfeder said.

Service was partially restored by late morning, but the MTA said trains would be replaced by shuttle buses again Wednesday night for repair work.

Thefts of copper to be sold as scrap have plagued railroads and utilities across the country. Copper was trading for about $2.80 a pound Wednesday.

More than a dozen employees of the MTA's Long Island Rail Road were arrested in 2013 on charges they conspired to sell $250,000 worth of copper wire over a three-year period.

"It is an issue that we're addressing. In fact, we've actually purchased infrared cameras that have been used in the apprehension of individuals who have attempted to steal copper cables," MTA spokesman Kevin Ortiz told CBS New York's radio affiliate 1010 WINS. "It is an issue that we are aware of, it is an issue that we are addressing."

People prosecuted for copper theft in New York state can be sentenced to 1 1/3 to 4 years in prison or more for grand larceny.