METAL thieves are to be thwarted as railway bosses begin pulling up 16 miles of track from a disused line.
Plans have been announced by Network Rail to remove the Leamside branch line from Tursdale, near Durham City.
But bosses have been forced to allay fears the move is a financial decision, as campaigners continue to argue for the reopening of the 21-mile line, to relieve pressure on the East Coast Main Line.
According to Network Rail, it would not be possible to reopen the line until after 2019.
Since the Leamside branch was mothballed in 1992, some sections of the track have become single line and other sections at level crossings have been removed by Network Rail.
However, metal thieves have cashed in on the disused track and in 2003, stole a mile of it from south of Penshaw in an elaborate six-day scam in which workers were paid to carry out the removal work, without realising the consequences.
A spokesman for Network Rail said: “Network Rail plans to remove the redundant railway materials from the old Leamside branch.
“The remaining redundant assets have been subject to a high level of thefts over the years, which at times have diverted the valuable resource of the local police, British Transport Police and Network Rail operational and maintainance staff.
“If in the future a business case and funding becomes available, re-instatement could be an option.”
Sunderland has been a popular target for metal thieves in recent months, with rail companies still counting the cost of the incidents.