ACROSS the world railway stations are magnets for vulnerable children and adults.

Whether in London, Mumbai, New York, Liverpool or Leeds, they are places to which people of all ages make their way to loiter or pass through while travelling to another town or city.

Some are running away from home, possibly to escape from a range of difficult issues - it could be family breakdown, relationship difficulties or abuse. Others may be travelling to meet someone they contacted online or making a journey with no fixed purpose.

Many may not realise that, although a safe place most of the time, transport networks can expose them to hidden dangers that can put vulnerable children and adults at risk of harm.

In the UK, a specialist unit works tirelessly to reduce this threat.

Formed three years ago and based in Leeds, British Transport Police (BTP) Safeguarding Team gather and coordinate information from railway stations and tracksides across the UK.

Crucially, they keep detailed records of children and adults who have previously been identified on the rail network and share this information with other agencies.

“This enables us to check whether people have come to our attention before, and whether, for instance, they may be vulnerable, have criminal convictions or have been a victim of crime themselves,” says team manager Lawrence Bone. “If they are running away the information we hold may offer clues as to the reason why - they may have a history of self-harm, drug or alcohol abuse. Or there may be a break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend.

“The safety and welfare of the person is paramount and having access to their background is vital.”

Last year across Yorkshire & Humberside - which has 184 railways stations - there were 565 reported concerns about youngsters aged 17 and under. The highest recorded was 120 in Leeds, followed by 67 in Doncaster, 64 in Hull, 48 in Sheffield and 41 in York. In Bradford - including Keighley and Shipley - there were 16.

“Around half of reports produce some worrying issues which we can address in conjunction with other agencies,” says Lawrence.

The team also work closely with specialist agencies that can help such as social care and mental health services, and also give guidance on current legislation. “We provide contacts in areas such as human trafficking and slavery, domestic abuse and forced marriage,” adds Lawrence.

Reports from officers working on the ground are submitted to the team, who also check that the correct procedures have been followed and that everything possible has been done in each case.

The safeguarding team aids forces in other areas if children are missing. “We look at the back story. Could they be travelling to a certain place, could they be at risk of sexual exploitation?” says Lawrence. “Police officers across the UK can access the information we gather.

“We find quite a lot of missing children through them not having a ticket and rail staff talking to them. In the North, many of them are found on the network around Manchester and Leeds.”

The team - which has a satellite office in Scotland, where legislation differs - work closely with rail staff. “They are our eyes and ears, and alert officers if they have any concerns” says Lawrence, “They may spot a child travelling alone, or with someone who arouses suspicions, or they may see a person who has been at the station for a long time without catching a train, and alert an officer.”

Adds BTP spokesman Hilary Bowyer: “We had a recent incident of an elderly man travelling with a young girl. He was spotted by a member of rail staff showing her some inappropriate material on his phone. An officer was called and further investigation revealed that the man was grooming her.”

Working together has reaped rewards. “Historically BTP’s information-sharing was not as good as it could be - now we have a good knowledge base which is invaluable,” says Lawrence.

Close liaison is also maintained with the Cheshire-based charity Railway Children which works to protect vulnerable children and adults at risk on Britain’s transport systems, and with Samaritans who, with the BTP, front the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign to help prevent suicide.

In a pilot scheme the force is passing on vulnerability training developed by the College of Policing to front-line officers in what to be alert to and how to tackle situations.

“Being able to identify people with vulnerabilities or in vulnerable situations is important,” says Lawrence. “Sometimes there are multiple concerns ranging from relatively low level to a life crisis. A child trespassing on the railway, for example, could be playing alongside the tracks, unaware of the dangers, or it could be at the other end of the scale, with depression and the chance of self-harm.

“In stations our officers and staff look at behaviour which is out of the ordinary. The way in which we approach people is important, as are the questions asked. These are not too specific - we prefer a cautionary approach, asking them general questions such as: ‘Are you okay? To where are you travelling?’ This hopefully will help them to build rapport with that person and allow for early identification of risk and vulnerability.”

“It is about everyone working together,” says Lawrence. “We recognise that we are an important cog in the wheel.”

*Text the BTP on 61016 for non-emergency incidents or e-mail; 0800 405040.