Teenage boys as young as 13 are being lured with promises of money and gifts to work for drug dealers, police have warned.
Young people are offered cash, mobile phones, vapes and clothes to take advantage of so-called “business opportunities” promoted on social media.
British Transport Police (BTP) said officers have seen messages sent out by drug dealers asking “who wants to make £500 this weekend?” as they draw young people into the gangs.
It is launching a campaign on Snapchat aimed at boys aged 13 to 15 in London, Birmingham and Liverpool to warn them away from getting involved with the criminal networks.
Teenagers are often exploited by drug dealers to carry illegal substances by train as part of so-called county lines networks.
These are drug gangs run from urban bases that stretch out to customers in rural areas using young and vulnerable people as couriers.
Since the BTP county lines taskforce was set up in late 2019 officers have arrested 2,250 suspects linked to the gangs, 40% of whom were under the age of 19.
Of the under-19s only 20% have faced criminal charges because many young people are recognised as victims of exploitation.
Detective Superintendent Gareth Williams, BTP’s County Lines Taskforce lead, said: “It’s not uncommon for my dedicated teams to encounter children on the railway who are being exploited to traffic drugs.
“Supported by safeguarding experts, a key priority of ours is to identify these victims and pull them out of harm’s way.
“The youngest person we’ve found being exploited in county lines activity was a boy aged 13 – in that case the couple controlling him to courier drugs were jailed for over 12 years.
“We’re relentless in our pursuit of these heartless human traffickers, and we are utilising modern slavery legislation to ensure they serve adequately lengthy jail terms.”
In a survey of 1,500 boys aged 13 to 19 commissioned by BTP, 19% said they or a friend had been offered work by a drug dealer.
The survey, carried out by OnePoll, found that 20% of the boys polled knew someone who sells or transports drugs.
It said that 15% of the teenagers had seen drugs being offered or sold on social media, and 18% at school.