Sir Brian Souter has written to Baroness Browning, Minister for Crime Prevention and Anti-Social Behaviour Reduction, asking for a clampdown on the thieves who bring misery to millions of rail passengers every year.
Thefts cause disruption to travellers, with trains delayed or cancelled, and cost the UK economy £770 million a year.
The number of cable thefts on Scotland’s railways almost trebled over the past year, according to the latest figures.
The rising price of copper and other metals on world markets is encouraging people to steal cables, according to British Transport Police. Recorded theft numbers rose from 57 to 186, up 226%.
Copper was selling for more than £6200 a tonne earlier this year, making rail cable more attractive to thieves.
However, Sir Brian has called for a robust licensing regime for scrap metal dealers. He called for the introduction of a licence fee, police powers to close dealers plus restrictions on trading scrap metal to cashless payments as well as a new rule that they must keep searchable records.
Sir Brian said: “The organised theft of metals is having a huge impact on the rail industry and its passengers, as well as on other critical aspects of the national infrastructure.
“Many rail customers know from bitter personal experience the terrible affect this can have on their daily lives.
“Improved legislation should actually benefit the business of legitimate metal recycling companies, as well as increasing the amount of tax payments to the Treasury.”
In January, the East Coast main line was closed for hours after thieves tried to steal a 650-volt live signalling cable at Inverkeithing, in Fife.
Last month, a gang of thieves stole metal cables worth thousands of pounds from a railway storage base in Paisley.