Virgin Trains launches new Alexa feature for disabled passengers to book help

Passenger Chris Tomson using JourneyCare assistance at Stoke-on-Trent station Credit: Matthew Pover/Virgin Trains/PA

A train company has launched a new service enabling disabled passengers to book travel assistance using voice commands.

Virgin Trains customers can request help getting on and off trains and reserve wheelchair spaces with Alexa-enabled devices.

The JourneyCare service for people with special requirements could previously only be booked by completing an online form or calling a helpline after train tickets were bought.

Alexa – a virtual assistant developed by Amazon – will speed up the process by allowing passengers to request assistance using voice commands immediately after purchasing tickets.

In May 2018 Virgin Trains became the first travel company in the world to sell train tickets through Alexa.

Chris Tomson, who has brittle bone disease and uses a wheelchair, took part in a trial of the process.

The 28-year-old said it does a “great job” of combining booking tickets with requesting assistance.

He went on: “It also comes in handy if I have any pain in my arms and I am unable to use a computer, phone or tablet to book my journey.”

Virgin Trains claims using its Alexa app – also known as a skill – halves the time it takes to request assistance.

Stephen Brookes, a campaigner for disabled passengers, said: “Those who are comfortable with and can access technology will find the system quick and efficient.

“But it doesn’t mean that those who cannot access or use new technology will miss out, as the staff involved in phone booking will be more freed up.”

Toby Radcliffe, customer proposition director at Virgin Trains, said: “We want to ensure train travel is accessible to as many people as possible and this is a further innovation in that direction.”

Analysis by charity Leonard Cheshire published in November 2018 found that more than 1,000 railway stations in Britain cannot be used by some disabled passengers as they do not have full step-free access.

Disabled comedian Tanyalee Davis made headlines in July last year when she was forced to move her mobility scooter from a disabled space on a Great Western Railway train.

She was reduced to tears when a train guard made her move so a woman could put her pram in the wheelchair area.

In March 2018 a disabled doctor was left stranded on a train in her wheelchair when no staff arrived to help her get off at London Euston, despite her booking assistance.

Dr Hannah Barham-Brown said it was one of a number of incidents she has suffered, adding that they make her feel “worthless”.