– To most five-year-olds, it would have been a cause for panic.
But when Shabaaz Iqbal lost his mother and four brothers in a busy store, he decided to use his head.
Since they had arrived on the train for their Christmas shopping trip, he marched straight back to Glasgow Central station to take the two-mile journey home to Pollokshields.
Unfortunately, instead of the local service, he chose the 16.06 to Reading.
And by the time he finally got off, at Macclesfield in Cheshire, his astonishing adventure had taken him 229 miles while his mother Ruksana agonised over her missing son.
Mrs Iqbal was finally reunited with Shabaaz in Manchester at 2.45am yesterday – 11 terrifying hours after she last saw him.
‘I haven’t stopped crying since he disappeared and am just so happy that he has turned up safe and well,’ she said.
‘But I cannot believe that he managed to get on a train and get so far without anyone bothering to speak to him to make sure he was okay.’
Mrs Iqbal, 32, took her five boys into Glasgow on Saturday afternoon to buy gifts and they were in the What Everyone Wants store on bustling Argyle Street when Shabaaz became parted from his family.
The youngster – in denim jacket, grey trousers and black shoes without socks – found his way to Central Station without anyone noticing him, walked through the busy concourse and boarded the first train he saw. In the meantime a distraught Mrs Iqbal had alerted shop staff that her son was missing and after a brief search they called in police.
More than 60 officers scoured the streets while a helicopter took off.
When Mrs Iqbal mentioned how excited her youngest son had been to travel in on the train, detectives also alerted British Transport Police.
By this time, Shabaaz had settled into a corner of the four-carriage Virgin crosscountry train.
Although it was packed with passengers, no one appeared to notice that Shabaaz was on his own – including the conductor who walked through the carriage checking tickets after the train stopped at Motherwell, Carlisle, Penrith, Oxenholme and Lancaster.
He was replaced by a second conductor at Preston who also failed to spot there was something wrong en route through Bolton, Manchester and Stockport.
It was three and a half hours into the journey when Shabaaz got off at Macclesfield hoping to find a policeman and was discovered wandering on the platform by station staff.
Fortunately a controller at Virgin’s Birmingham HQ had heard a news bulletin about the disappearance of a little boy, and police were contacted.
Superintendent Carolyn Harper said Shabaaz was remarkably calm. ‘He was quite hungry so officers bought him a fish supper.
‘He is a very self-assured little boy but why he wasn’t stopped getting on the train we just don’t know.
‘People can be reticent about approaching children because they feel it can be misconstrued.’
As she hugged her son last night, Glasgow-born Mrs Iqbal, who is separated from her husband, said: ‘Shabaaz hates wearing socks and even when I send him to school in them he takes them off.
‘When the police officer told me they had found a little boy I asked him whether he was wearing any socks and when he said no, I knew it was my son.’
Playing happily with his brothers Majid, 14, Sajad, 13, Nadeem, nine, and Mohsan, seven, Shabaaz said: ‘I couldn’t find my mum in the shops so I tried to go home on the train but there was only the big train.
‘No one asked me for a ticket and no one spoke to me.
‘I got off the train on my own and told a policeman my address, then I got some crisps and tea.
‘I really like trains and I would like to go on a big journey like that again.’
A spokesman for Virgin Trains last night denied that staff had been negligent in not spotting the little boy sooner.
‘Glasgow Central is an open-plan station without any manual ticket barrier which made it easy for this little boy to walk on to the platform,’ he said.
‘Although the doors of the trains are electronically operated, with so many passengers getting on they are likely to have been open most of the time until departure.
‘Children under five do not need a ticket to travel so there was no reason for the conductor to speak to him.
‘The boy himself seemed quite calm and was not distressed.
‘There is nothing we could have done to stop him getting on the train and had no reason to think he was unaccompanied.
‘But we will be speaking to staff on Monday about what happened to see if lessons need to be learned.’
– Rebecca English, David Connor & Andrew Loudon