THE body which maintains the UK's railway lines and infrastructure is urging the Scottish Government to follow the example south of Border and ban scrap metal dealers from paying cash to traders in the wake of a spate of cable thefts which disrupted Highland trains for three days last week.

Network Rail is pressing ministers at Holyrood to replicate laws introduced in England and Wales which prohibit recycling yards from paying cash in exchange for metal, with stricter penalties for offenders.

The Scottish Government is analysing responses to its consultation on proposals to introduce a new criminal offence to stop scrap metal dealers paying for scrap metal in cash and being able to do so only by electronic payment or by cheque.

Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill said last night: "The Scottish Government is determined to tackle the increase in metal theft during recent years.

"This issue, as highlighted by recent incidents, can cause major problems for communities and major inconvenience for travellers as well as a range of other serious safety and cost issues."

Last week, trains were cancelled on part of the Aberdeen to Inverness route after thieves stole one-and-a-quarter miles of electrified copper signalling cable in two incidents on Sunday and Tuesday, disrupting services until Wednesday.

Nick King, communication manager for Network Rail Scotland, said: "You can take copper right now to any scrappie in Scotland and get cash in your hands, you don't need to prove your identity or anything like that. In England and Wales, a change in the law means traders can no longer get cash for scrap metal - and they need ID as well."

He added: "We're keen to see that up here because we think it would have a big impact on the resale value, or at the very least the ability to resell. It would take the opportunistic thieves out of the market at least."

However, he added: "It wouldn't necessarily take out the organised gangs who are doing it in bulk and trying to move it on abroad."

Homegrown gangs stealing to order and shipping copper overseas, especially to the Far East, are believed to be behind the majority of metal thefts on Scotland's railway network.

Copper fetches about £4600 per tonne and thefts of track and signalling cable have cancelled 253 trains and cost Network Rail in Scotland almost £600,000 in the last three years - not so much in replacing stolen cable as compensating operators such as ScotRail, Virgin and East Coast who are unable to run services as a result.