How County Lines Gangs Exploit Children Using the Rail Network

Over the past decade, the UK has seen an increase in ‘County Lines Gangs’ using the rail network to exploit children into trafficking drugs. But what does County Lines mean? And who are the gangs? What are the effects on children and the signs to look out for?

What is County Lines?

County Lines is where illegal drugs are transported from one area to another, often across police and local authority boundaries (although not exclusively), usually by children or vulnerable people who are coerced into it by gangs. The ‘County Line’ is the mobile phone line used to take the orders of drugs. Importing areas (areas where the drugs are taken to) are reporting increased levels of violence and weapons-related crimes as a result of this trend.

What are County Lines Gangs?

County line gangs are urban drug dealers who sell to customers in more rural areas via dedicated phone lines. There are currently thought to be around 600 of these gangs operating in the UK, down from around 2,000 two years ago.

How do County Lines Gangs Exploit Children?

A common feature in county lines drug supply is the exploitation of young and vulnerable people. The dealers will frequently target children and adults - often with mental health or addiction problems - to act as drug runners or move cash so they can stay under the radar of law enforcement. In some cases, the dealers will take over a local property, normally belonging to a vulnerable person, and use it to operate their criminal activity from. This is known as cuckooing.

People exploited in this way will quite often be exposed to physical, mental and sexual abuse, and in some instances will be trafficked to areas a long way from home as part of the network's drug dealing business.

As in child sexual exploitation, children often don't see themselves as victims or realise they have been groomed to get involved in criminality. So it's important that we all play our part to understand county lines and speak out if we have concerns. 

What are the Signs of a Child Involved in County Lines?

Some of the signs of county lines involvement and exploitation are:

  • A child or young person going missing from school or home or significant changes in emotional well-being
  • A person meeting unfamiliar adults or a change to their behaviour
  • The use of drugs and alcohol
  • Acquiring money or expensive gifts they can’t account for
  • Lone children from outside of the area
  • Individuals with multiple mobile phones, tablets or ‘SIM cards’
  • Young people with more money, expensive clothing, or accessories than they can account for
  • Unknown or suspicious looking characters coming and going from a neighbour’s house
  • Relationships with controlling or older individuals or associations with gangs
  • Suspicion of self-harm, physical assault or unexplained injuries

How do you know if County Lines drug dealing is happening in your area?

Some signs to look out for include:

  • An increase in visitors and cars to a house or flat
  • New faces appearing at the house or flat
  • New and regularly changing residents (e.g different accents compared to local accent
  • Change in resident's mood and/or demeanour (e.g. secretive/ withdrawn/ aggressive/ emotional)
  • Substance misuse and/or drug paraphernalia
  • Changes in the way young people you might know dress
  • Unexplained, sometimes unaffordable new things (e.g clothes, jewellery, cars etc)
  • Residents or young people you know going missing, maybe for long periods of time
  • Young people seen in different cars/taxis driven by unknown adults
  • Young people seeming unfamiliar with your community or where they are
  • Truancy, exclusion, disengagement from school
  • An increase in anti-social behaviour in the community
  • Unexplained injuries

At Railway Children, we have partnered with British Transport Police (BTP) to develop our Safeguarding on Transport programme. Through the delivery of this training, we are helping people know what to look out for in regards to County Lines Gangs and how to respond to children in danger on and around the transport system.

We are proud to be one of only a few charities who have a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) and Information Sharing Agreement (ISA) with BTP which allows us to offer the support under the partnership.  From the forms BTP officers fill in about each young person they identify as being at risk, we are able to assess the level of risk and vulnerability and offer the appropriate support.

We operate four projects across the country that can offer one-to-one support to young people and their families as well as enabling us to be more visible to officers and our rail colleagues on the network and at stations. We regularly hold briefings with officers, participate in joint patrols, work closely with BTP on key operations and join in with station safety events.

But we can’t be everywhere all the time. We can reach many more children with the help of communities working as our eyes and ears. With the support of our partners in the rail industry, we are also creating a national safety network to protect vulnerable children on and around the UK's transport system.

We are currently establishing Safeguarding Action Groups at key stations across the UK. We are also working closely with British Transport Police and other key industry partners to promote safety, raise awareness around the issues that young people face and to highlight vulnerability across the rail network. This is done through joint patrols, pop up stalls and supporting joint operations.

If you feel a child you know may be at risk of exploitation or is getting involved with county lines gangs, you can report your concerns to BTP by calling them on 0800 40 50 40, or text them on 61016. In an emergency, always call 999.