Alastair Dalton: Young should be shown delights of transport

The young ScotRail pass is just one way of getting youngsters excited by public transport. Picture: Kimberley Powell
The young ScotRail pass is just one way of getting youngsters excited by public transport. Picture: Kimberley Powell
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British Transport Police officers were talking to pupils at a Glasgow primary school, minutes away from a busy railway station in the city.

They were surprised to learn – as was the class teacher – that few of the six-year-olds had ever been on a train.

While most had travelled by plane and ferry – while on holiday – it appears they have been missing out on the routine use of public transport, which probably goes for buses too.

Many parents find it more convenient to continue driving their children around for pretty much every journey, as they are likely to have been doing since they were babies.

They probably think it’s safer too, and a child buckled up in a car seat is far less hassle than one able to jump around on buses and trains.

But there’s a major downside to this, both immediate and for the future.

For a start, leaving the car at home almost always involves more walking – to and from the bus stop or train station – bringing extra fresh air and exercise.

By contrast, being driven about may not quite make children into the bloated humans in the spaceship in WALL-E, but it’s the first step.

Equally significant is youngsters’ attitudes to public transport. If they don’t use it, they won’t identify with it – or respect it. In extreme cases, buses and trains become targets for vandals and stone-throwers, and the railway is seen as a beguiling environment for dangerous experimentation such as with overhead wires, with potentially fatal consequences.

Then there’s developing travel habits for later life. Children used to cars as the only means of getting around may develop that mindset as they form their own transport aspirations.

What they need is the experience of other ways to travel, to get a rounded view.

Finally, the wider impact on society. Cars remain one of the biggest sources of Scotland’s carbon emissions and other pollutants that are harmful to either health or the environment.

Yes, electric and other zero-emissions vehicles are slowly becoming more popular. Further ahead, driver-less cars offer the potential for cutting crashes and injuries to their occupants, pedestrians and others on the road.

However, they will not reduce congestion from vehicles gridlocking roads while trying to go somewhere, and on residential streets when parked.

So what’s being done to encourage children to travel by bus and train? ScotRail has a commendable, well-established scheme where five- to 15-year-olds travel free with paying adults – younger children being carried free anyway.

In the past, the train operator even offered special child “tickets” for youngsters to hold, although I felt the teddy bear picture showed it didn’t fully understand the target market as even some five-year-olds rejected them as babyish.

Some bus operators have got further to go. Lacking the vast public subsidy enjoyed by ScotRail, they understandably are less able to afford to offer such free travel.

However, simple things could make bus travel more attractive to families, like making fare information more readily available. Some major firms offer return tickets for adults but not kids, so you need to remember to have the correct change twice.

The challenge for operators, parents and politicians is to be innovative – and make travel for children more interesting at the same time.