Row as Virgin is given year long extension for West Coast train service

A Virgin pendolino train
A Virgin pendolino train
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Lancashire rail travellers will get improved wifi and mobile phone coverage on pendolino trains after Virgin was controversially given an extension to its West Coast Main Line franchise.

But transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been blasted for the extension, given Virgin’s involvement in the troubled East Coast franchise with Stagecoach, which is ending in 2020, three years early.

He was also criticised for making the announcement late on Monday after markets had closed.

Virgin has said the one year extension until April 2019, when the new West Coast Partnership takes over, will mean improvements for customers.

These will include better free wifi on pendolinos and better mobile phone coverage.

Virgins said it is investing £7.5m, refitting all 56 pendolinos, contactless payment on ticket machines, station investment, more apprenticeships, more staff at peak times and better customer information.

Phil Whittingham, Managing Director of Virgin Trains on the West Coast said: “Virgin Trains has led the industry for more than two decades, and I’m delighted that we have secured a new contract to continue operating on the West Coast.

"The investment will see a big improvement in our on-board WiFi, and follows our industry-leading innovations such as automatic delay-repay and free films and TV on board via our Beam app.

“I’m pleased that we’ll be able to offer almost all of our customers access to the improved WiFi for free. We know WiFi is a top priority for our customers and I’m sure they’ll welcome the upgrades to both speed and availability.”

Lord Adonis has written to Chris Grayling, pointing out that he was given advice by the Transport Department's lawyers in 2009 that it would be reasonable not to invite a company to bid for future franchises where it had recently failed to deliver on a previous franchise.

His letter said: "You could have ascertained this from the officials who advised me in 2009, so I assume your untrue statement in the Commons was wilful in order to attempt to deflect criticism from your extraordinary decisions to give a new contract to Virgin for the West Coast Main Line, to allow Stagecoach to bid for the next three rail franchises and even to consider allowing Stagecoach to continue operating the East Coast on a new contract.

"You are in breach of the Ministerial Code. I would be grateful for a parliamentary statement today correcting the record."

Shadow transport secretary Andy McDonald said: "This Government is propping up a crumbling system of failing rail franchising.

"The Secretary of State for Transport should have and could have banned Stagecoach from the rail industry for defaulting on its contract."

The invitation to tender for the new West Coast Partnership, for the West Coast Main Line and HS2, is expected to be issued shortly. Virgin Trains is short-listed to bid for this franchise, with the bidding partnership consisting of Stagecoach (50 per cent), French hi-speed trains firm SNCF (30 per cent) and Virgin (20 per cent).