The international charity, Railway Children, is doing more than ever in and around UK stations. In this interview with Railway Children’s Gaynor Little, Lucy Prior learns more about their Safeguarding project, its impact to date and their plans for the future…

What is the safeguarding project? Wasn’t the charity created to help vulnerable children in India and Africa?

Railway Children has been fighting for children alone and at risk on the streets for over 25 years. During that time, we’ve reached more than 275,000 children. Yes, when David Maidment first created the charity its focus was on children living at railway stations in India and on the streets and then the work moved to East Africa, but we now also work extensively in the UK in partnership with the British Transport Police (BTP). Here in the UK 100,000 children run away each year and 18,000 sleep rough or with someone they’ve just met. They are at extreme risk of violence, abuse and exploitation.

Our Safeguarding on Transport programme focusses on identifying and supporting vulnerable children who use the UK rail system to escape their problems. We aim to reach them before abusers can.

What is your role in the programme and how did you get involved? Have you always worked in the railway sector?

My official title is Head of UK Programme, Safeguarding on Transport, and it’s safe to say that I’ve not followed the most obvious route into railway. After mainstream schooling I went to study at Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts. In the last year there I fell in love with community arts, music and art as therapy. I felt that the stage was not the place for me: I am such a home bird. In my final year I worked on a community arts project working with varied clients: the elderly, Special Educational Need and Disability (SEND) students, young children and those in care. In all instances it was about introducing light and laughter and I loved it.

From there I moved on to study for my Masters in Dramatherapy, and to work on supporting people through bereavement and loss. I ended up working with another children’s charity in a project supporting runaways charity and I loved it. It was there I met Andy McCullough, Railway Children’s Safeguarding Director. He came to speak to the team at the charity I worked for at the time, and I knew then that I really wanted to work for Railway Children one day. I moved across a number of years later, as a project coordinator for the Manchester team, and then a few weeks after I moved into this role.

How does the Safeguarding programme make a difference?

In so many ways, but what is crucial is that we know we cannot and should not do this alone. We engage with so many others to design, deliver and roll out this programme. The rail community is so supportive, and we as a charity succeed on working with others and support what they are doing, supporting the operating companies for example, and vice versa.

The key thing for me: the safeguarding project really is making a difference. The project and the people involved have had such a positive impact through intervention, and made massive changes to young peoples’ lives, but we can do more together. One of our key offerings is helping to support more staff, e.g. on-board crew, platform and station staff. We can offer awareness training about vulnerable young people using their service and the key concerns to look out for and what to do.

This training helps open peoples’ eyes, helps them pick up on subtle cues or signifiers, and understand if and when to intervene themselves for example, or understand which other agencies ought to be alerted such as BTP. So many of these signs be hard to see, or to see through. For example, when train staff encounter overt anti-social behaviour, i.e. youngsters being loud or intimidating, we help people be more confident in picking up on the signs. Signs that there is perhaps something more serious behind the behaviour and help them to know when to act upon such behaviour themselves, or when it is safer to call in support from the British Transport Police.

Why do you think the railway, and perhaps trains and stations in particular are places where kids at risk find themselves?

They can be a safe place. Children can gravitate towards stations because they are well lit, have CCTV, are generally staffed and have facilities. Basic facilities such as clean toilets, but also Wi-Fi. And unlike in a café they can blend in a bit. They’re not an obvious nuisance in a station, and they might also think they’re less likely to be noticed, or watched, as they would be in a smaller space. They can mingle in a station, and they can try and make themselves almost invisible.

And this is where our support and training for railway staff really comes into its own. We help staff recognize those finely nuanced behaviours and traits that indicate that these aren’t just youths hanging around. Such as how they are dressed, thinking about the time of day, who they are with or where they are travelling too.

The awareness training that we provide is accessible to almost everyone; we have developed an e-learning platform which is an easy to use, twenty-minute course, and we of course offer face to face training as well that can be delivered in-house. This entails scenario-based training that helps staff learn to pick out the subtle signs in behaviour that indicate that someone needs help, but crucially it helps them act upon this insight safely.

At no point do we wish any individual to put themselves at risk, so a train crew member for example would be confident to ask for help from British Transport Police who they can call upon if it is not safe to intervene themselves. And this training can be offered to almost anyone within the railway community, not only TOC or Network Rail staff.

Are there any limits to this training?

In terms of accessibility, no, but in terms of face to face delivery, yes. We are exceptionally grateful to the TOCs that give us so much support each year which can be in terms of help with travel, fundraising, sponsorship and events etc. There are so many people to mention and thank yous to give it would be difficult to name them all but for example Northern Rail and Aviva help us with travel passes so we can deliver training across their route, attend key meetings and complete home visits and sessions to the children engaging in our programme.

This is also a great example of the goodwill we receive, and how supportive the railway community is at large. I can cite countless examples of how the rail community is supporting our work, and of cases where people have been able to intervene with our help, or through our training, all of which have made a real change for the young people in question. But we can do more. We can do more together, and we can do more to support those front-line staff who come across these youngsters.

Small pockets of people will help as much as they can which is great, but we want to get the message to a bigger audience if we can, and I would love to speak to anyone that is interested in supporting the UK work we are doing..

Can you give any examples of the impact both your safeguarding training and the Safeguarding programme has already had?

Loads! One lovely example from our London team was where a young runaway had been picked up through the programme; he’s autistic and loves trains. We discovered he was struggling with neglect at home, and once this was realized GTR gave him a day’s free travel and accompanied by their training director he was able to have a go on their training simulator. Using reward and incentive we were able not only to intervene in the domestic situation, but also to drive home a really important safety message; it was just brilliant.

An East Midlands Guard made a referral which really helped support a family at a time of crisis. Acting on instinct alone the guard discovered that this was a missing person; through Safeguarding we have subsequently been able to provide significant support to the young person and the family. The youngster was agoraphobic and suffered mental health issues. By being more aware and knowing what signs to pick up that Guard has enabled us to help rebuild that person’s home relationships. Gut feelings can have a massive impact; teamed with our Safeguarding training this impact is amplified.

Where does the safeguarding programme operate? Is this just in our major cities?

We rolled this programme out starting in 2017 in the North West focussed around Manchester Piccadilly, but whilst we centre on one station, the programme will cover a much wider region and also smaller stations. Manchester is a centre for the North West for example and our Leeds project, launched in October last year, spans from Sheffield to Hull and supports the smaller stations across that region. Our London project based in Euston station covers 15 inner boroughs.

We recognize the county lines problems that exploit vulnerable kids, so we are active across routes and regions to help tackle that problem. Other TOCs that have referred young people to BTP who have then had support from us include all of those operating in the Yorkshire area, including LNER, TPE, Northern, EMR and Network Rail staff, and these interventions have uncovered issues such as bullying, missing persons, assault-victims, and runaways.

We are hoping to roll the programme out next in Birmingham and then hopefully Glasgow. Essentially, we pick the ‘hot spots’ were the highest number of vulnerable children are referred and use our five-year strategy to create a project and commitment to offering support. We ensure that there is an overarching support across these hot-spots, and then based on finances we apply for trusts and grants. As an example, the Leeds project will cost in the region of £120,000 per year. This covers the cost of two full time staff and one coordinator.

Where we are able, we access funding to make these projects possible and more affordable and link in with local business both rail and non-rail for support and help. Business support can be in the form of shared funding, but Volker Rail for example sponsor our Big Station Sleepout event, which this year raised over £155,000 which contributes towards the programme nationally.

The work that we do is primarily about protecting the vulnerable: making the invisible visible as we say. It is so much more than stopping kids from causing trouble at stations; we uncover the reasons behind the behaviour and provide long-term support to help them get back into school, stop them from going into care, end bullying, break free from grooming etc. But I would like to add that we are also supporting those that support us. Our interventions, our training and our collaborating with operators, Network Rail, the BTP and others, is also having a positive social effect, and is reducing the impact of these youngsters’ behaviours on staff and the public. And we want to do more.

If you wish to know more about the Safeguarding Project or the Big Station Sleepout please visit www.railwaychildren.org.uk or follow Gaynor on @GaynorLittle @RailwayChildren