A cunning conman set up a maintenance company which hired unsuspecting workers to steal two-and-a-half miles of railway track worth £250,000.

Under the name KGT Enterprises Ltd, Glen Pendleton, 49, masterminded the scam to lift 350 tonnes of scrap in broad daylight.

For six days his gang of workers armed with JCBs, hammers and digging tools dismantled the Leamside line near Penshaw, Sunderland.

Newcastle Crown Court heard how Pendleton, as one of the directors of KGT Eenterprises Ltd, was able to hire heavy machinery and employ workers from Sheffield to carry out the labour.

Pendleton used his expertise and knowledge of the rail industry which he gained while being employed by rail maintenance company Jarvis to come up with the plot.

The court heard how his labourers wore Jarvis jackets to make the work look less suspicious to onlookers.

It was only when they were spotted by an actual Jarvis employee in January this year that the police were called and the scam was foiled.

Prosecutor Robert Adams told the court: "The prosecution case is the company was set up purely as a front for what later happened.

"On January 10 2003, the company hired a tipper truck and the hire fee was paid by this defendent. "Work began by this company on January 11 2003 and the workforce was recruited from Sheffield who were paid between £30 and £50 per day.

"Pendleton hired a JCB and the workers spent 6 days cutting up the line into 40-foot lengths for removal into the yard of a scarp metal dealer.

"By January 15, work was progressing more slowly than was hoped and the defendant hired a second JCB." The police were called on Januray 16 after a tip off from a legitimate Jarvis worker.

Pendleton was arrested and admitted stealing the line and said he could have made around £8,000 profit for himself. The lines were to be sold to a scarp firm for £40 per tonne.

The court heard how the line was mothballed in 1992 which means that although it was not in use, it could have been reinstated.

Because of the damage done to the 16 mile track, the cost of reinstating the line will be over £826,000.

Pendleton's defence team insist that rumours that the line was about to be sold for £1 are true but prosecutors insist that the Strategic Rail Authority intend to reinstate the line for freight and possibly passenger use.

Defence barrister John Temple said Pendleton had no intention of removing the full line. He added: "He has made no financial gain from this at all.

"Some of the line was lifted and left at the side of the track, other parts were taken to a scarp metal dealer but the payment of ?40 per tonne was intercepted before he received it.

Pendleton, of Williams Street, Worksop, Nottinghamshire, admitted theft between January 16 2002 and January 17 2003 of ?250,000 worth of track belonging to Railtrack Plc.

Despite having no previous convictions for dishonesty, Pendleton was given a life sentence in 1974 after pleading guilty to manslaughter.

Judge David Wood sentenced Pendleton to two years behind bars.

The judge said: "By working for Jarvis Ltd, you have obviously acquired a lot of expertise and know-how about the railway.

"Unfortunately it seems to be the position you decided to set up a company of your own with the intention of lifting Railtrack's lines and selling them for profit and that is exactly what you did.

"This was quite a sophisticated operation, you are an intelligent man with a good deal of knowledge of the business.

"You set up a company using your knowledge of how to carry it out. Had you got away with it, you would have made a substantial benefit.

"These sorts of disused railway lines are very vulnerable to theft and are difficult to police because of the remote areas they are in.

"They have to have the protection of the courts to protect them." When officers swooped they were amazed to see hundreds of the 18-metre-long lengths of steel, weighing around 1,000kg each, had disappeared and all that remained was wooden sleepers and stone ballast.