A young woman with pink hair sitting in a wheelchair in front of the departure screens at Birmingham New Street station, uses her phone to send a message.

Dedicated channel provides instant accessibility help during rail journeys in industry first from Avanti West Coast

Avanti West Coast launches new communication channel for disabled customers to provide support while travelling. 

  • ‘Travel Companion’ connects disabled customers with accessible travel experts for instant help during journey
  • Dedicated channel aims to reassure and enable independent travel
  • Avanti teams up with tech provider, Be My Eyes, in first for transport industry

Avanti West Coast has launched a dedicated communications channel to provide disabled customers with instant help during their journey in a first for the UK rail industry.

Called ‘Travel Companion’, the channel utilises the widely used messaging app, WhatsApp, to connect passengers on the West Coast Main Line to someone with similar experience who can offer specialist support while travelling.

Staffed by specialist members of Avanti West Coast’s social media team who have passion and empathy for accessibility, as well as knowledge of it, Travel Companion aims to improve journeys when the unexpected happens by giving disabled customers the opportunity to chat to someone that really understands.

This means they don’t have to explain in detail what support they need – making it a better experience for the customer.

Whether it’s a lift suddenly out of order, or a wheelchair user needing help from a Train Manager while onboard, customers can reach out for extra assistance by messaging Avanti West Coast Travel Companion on WhatsApp. A member of the team will then exchange messages with the customer to check their needs and help in a way that’s right for them. 

As part of the launch of the dedicated channel, the train operator has recruited Martin Byrne and Ricky West as Accessibility Social Media Executives, both of whom have first-hand knowledge of accessibility, to lead on assisting people in times of need.

To support blind or partially-sighted people, the intercity operator has also teamed up with technology provider, Be My Eyes – a free app offering video support at a moment’s notice from sighted volunteers and professionals who lend their eyes to solve tasks. This collaboration means customers using Travel Companion have the option to use the Be My Eyes app to ask for assistance on queries that may not be easily communicated via text alone, such as their location onboard a train or at a station, which ticket to present for their journey or even reading the label on food items.

By gathering all the details of the situation direct from the customer, the social media team can identify and explain the options available, so issues or questions can be resolved quickly.

Staff have received disability awareness and inclusion training to help them better understand challenges faced by disabled people and consider the ways they can best support those who need extra assistance.  

Travel Companion is ultimately designed to be a safety net for any disabled customers travelling on the west coast - a resource they can rely on for extra help if the unexpected happens and they cannot find assistance from a member of staff themselves.

It is the latest initiative by the long-distance operator to change communication with disabled customers and enable independent travel - by offering an opportunity for in the moment dialogue with accessible travel experts when things do not go to plan.

The channel follows the introduction of the dedicated social media forum – Accessible Rail Travel with Avanti West Coast – on Facebook in 2021. This is aimed at disabled customers planning or making journeys so they can receive hints and tips, as well as interact with people who have a shared understanding. 

Travel Companion uses an internet connection making the dedicated support accessible to anyone, anywhere on the west coast route through WiFi at stations, onboard, or using a small amount of mobile data.

Brandon Peat, Accessibility and Inclusion Manager at Avanti West Coast, said: “We know the value of creating a dialogue with those who have a shared understanding, which is why we’ve launched Travel Companion to connect our disabled customers with accessible travel experts during their journey.

“Through the use of accessible technology, our partnership with Be My Eyes, and first-hand knowledge from our people, we want to build a rapport with our disabled customers, so we can assist them in the best possible way.

“By providing a dedicated channel, we hope those who may need additional assistance are reassured they can get that bit of extra help when they need it, as well as give them more confidence to make journeys independently.”

Avanti West Coast will work with members of its industry leading national and regional accessibility panels to shape Travel Companion and make it as accessible as possible, while being suitable for those travelling on its network.

Tony Jennings, Co-Chair of Avanti West Coast’s external Accessibility Panel, said: “Travel Companion will improve ‘live’ communications for disabled customers and give confidence to travel on their end-to-end journey. Knowing that trained staff can be communicated with via WhatsApp, for missed Passenger Assistance or communication with onboard staff, will be incredibly helpful. This new service can make a huge difference to a customer’s experience when travelling with Avanti West Coast.”

Hans Jørgen Wiberg, Founder of Be My Eyes Be My Eyes, said: “Our partnership with Avanti West Coast is a further step into a more accessible and inclusive travel experience for millions of blind and low vision individuals. This is the first time a transportation company joins Be My Eyes Specialized Help and we are all so excited about this opportunity!”


Contact Information

Laura Normansell

Avanti West Coast


Notes to editors

To connect with Travel Companion for assistance, message 07980 037037 on WhatsApp.

Speaking of being involved in the launch of Travel Companion, Martin said: “I’m excited to be part of this dedicated channel that could shape and improve journeys for Avanti West Coast customers and promote accessible travel. Being a user of public transport due to my visual impairment, I understand the challenges our customers may have to deal with.”

Ricky, who is registered blind, comments: "Travelling can have its hurdles, and it limits those to get out there and explore our beautiful country, but having the help and support from staff that have empathy and a level of understanding will allow customers to get on board and explore.”  

About Be My Eyes    

Be My Eyes is a free mobile app with one main goal: to make the world more accessible for blind and low-vision people. Since its launch in 2015, Be My Eyes has built a global community that connects people who are blind or have low vision with sighted volunteers or company representatives. At the moment, more than 6.4 million people have signed up as volunteers on the Be My Eyes app, assisting over 465,000 blind and low vision individuals from 150+ countries.

With the Specialized Help feature, blind and low-vision users can also connect with company representatives for accessible customer support. Be My Eyes also offers a variety of corporate solutions besides Specialized Help, including Be My Eyes for Work, Corporate Volunteering, Be My Eyes Experiences and Be My Eyes Careers. Learn more at www.bemyeyes.com.

About Avanti West Coast   

Avanti West Coast, operator of intercity rail services on the West Coast Main Line, is a joint venture between FirstGroup and Trenitalia, delivering a cleaner, greener railway that drives the West Coast forward.

We’re on a mission to revolutionise train travel. Our refurbed Pendolinos are returning to the rails, with a £117m investment that’s delivering best in class comfort. Rebuilt using sustainable materials wherever possible, including tables made from recycled plastic bottles, our upgraded fleet offers 25,000 brand new seats, free Wi-Fi, onboard recycling and much more.

New Hitachi trains are set to replace our Voyager trains from 2023, leading to a 61% cut in carbon emissions. Quieter and roomier, with more reliable Wi-Fi, wireless charging for electrical devices and a real-time customer information system, the new 23-strong fleet is the result of a £350m investment in sustainable travel.

We’re tackling climate change wherever we can, from reducing energy and water use to training drivers in eco-driving techniques and sourcing food and drink from local suppliers. Our goal is to be net zero carbon by 2031. We’re on track.

For the latest news, visit the Avanti West Coast Media Centre: https://newsdesk.avantiwestcoast.co.uk/

Press Office: 0845 000 3333