Campaigners question why under-fives are not guaranteed a seat on trains

Child with train set Credit: ITV News

Train companies should be doing more to attract young families, according to campaigners who look after the interests of passengers.

And there is one big issue in particular which they could start with - making sure all children who get a free ticket to travel also get a seat.

It is an issue I've been investigating since bumping into a mother with two young children while I was on a train late last year.

It was a very busy Sunday afternoon service and, like me, Rebecca Dalzell was on her way home from a weekend away. We had all reserved seats on a train which was at full capacity. Rebecca had her two children with her.

Rebecca Dalzell travelling by train with her two children Credit: Family photo

My attention was first drawn to them when I noticed the difficult balancing act Rebecca was having to perform with her two children with her on a single seat, eventually ending up with them sitting on the floor under her feet.

Eddie and Toby are both under five and so they travel for free. For them, it is always a big adventure when they get on the train, but this sort of situation means it is not always an adventure their mum looks forward to because even though they get a free ticket they are not guaranteed a seat.

And on this occasion there were no spare seats on the train as she explained to me: "We had one seat in a row of two. There was a man sat beside me and I had both children on my knee. You've got a wriggly 18-month-old and a wriggly two-and-a-half year old. At one point one was sat on my knee and one was sat at my feet."

Rebecca also has concerns that many trains lack changing facilities, leaving her forced to balance her child on a toilet seat, and that there is a lack of space to store prams, although she does concede that she understands that trains are usually designed for commuters rather than young families.

Train companies allow children to travel for free when they are under five but do not always guarantee them a seat Credit: ITV News

The current rules mean under-fives travel for free but train companies are not obliged to guarantee them a seat.

Train companies which reserve seats for free for under 5s:

Train companies which reserve seats for paying passengers but not for under 5s:

Train companies which offer no reservations for any passengers, mainly because they run a largely commuter service:

The government announced last year that a new organisation, Great British Railways, will take over responsibility for the rail network. A consultation, which began in December, is due to end later this week asking for feedback on what changes should be considered with a spokesperson for the organisation's transition team saying:

"The needs of the customer, both rail and freight, will be at the heart of the new organisation. There is currently a Call for Evidence which closes on 4th Feb and organisations such as Transport Focus and the Campaign for Better Transport are being asked for their input as part of that.”

Transport Focus, which campaigns for passengers' rights, thinks the network should work harder to attract families to travel, something which happens in many other countries according to their spokesperson Sara Nelson:

"We know that in other countries you have the option to then apply for a free of charge seat reservation so that could work or maybe some other way to book for a nominal fee. In the longer term some reform would be great to sort out this seat system, but for now, just information to break down with barriers."

Another idea, supported by the website MumsNet, is the introduction of family-friendly carriages, something which has caught the attention of parenting expert Angela Morris:

"You could run it in quiet hours. I think it's certainly worth exploring and trialing and then they can get feedback. I think people complain less about increasing fare rises when they see that there's more happening for their money."

So could any of that happen? The Rail Delivery Group, which has overall responsibility for how the train network is run, says now is the time for such a debate:

“We want everyone to have the best possible journey and we’re sorry when they don’t. Taking the train is a great way for families to travel and that’s why we do not charge for children under 5. However, this does mean that in some instances, train companies are not able to reserve seats for children who are travelling at no cost as they may be needed for customers who are paying a full fare.” (Rail Delivery Group spokesperson.)

And what does Rebecca hope comes of her speaking to us for this story? Her children are usually oblivious to how busy the trains are and just enjoy the excitement of waving at things they are passing out of the windows. She wants to plan more trips for them but just hopes that in time those journeys become easier as more train companies consider whether there is more they can do to make their services easier for young families to use.

Watch James Webster's full report: