VIRGIN TRAINS is to improve the Wi-Fi on its Pendolino trains and make it free to all passengers in a new direct award franchise, agreed with the Department for Transport.
The current franchise, operated by Virgin Rail Group, a 51:49 joint venture of Virgin and Stagecoach, ends on 31 March. A new one-year franchise will see the operation continue, with the option of a further one-year extension at DfT’s discretion. The direct award will bridge the gap between the existing franchise and the new West Coast Partnership, which will include operation of the initial HS2 services when the high-speed line opens in 2026.
Virgin says its 56 Class 390 Pendolino trains will undergo a refit to ‘vastly improve’ the on-board Wi-Fi equipment in a £7.5 million investment. Installation of the upgrade will begin in May, with work to be completed in January 2019, when free Wi-Fi will be extended to all passengers on Pendolinos. The upgrade will not include Virgin’s fleet of Class 221 Voyager trains.
In addition to the Wi-Fi improvements, VT says it will also investigate eliminating ‘not-spots’ (places without mobile phone coverage). Other initiatives include an upgrade of station ticket machines to accept contactless payment and more than £3 million to improve station and on-board environments, with additional seating at stations and improved toilets, lighting and carpets on board. Additional staff at stations during busy times to improve accessibility, better customer information during disruption through improvement to the customer contact system and new apprenticeship opportunities, including for train driver roles, are also promised.
The West Coast Partnership franchise is currently scheduled to begin on 1 April 2019, although an invitation to tender is yet to be released. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the House of Commons on 5 February that this would be issued ‘in due course’; DfT’s most recent franchising schedule indicated it would have been issued in November 2017. He said the direct award to VT will be ‘a sensible bridge’ between the existing contract and the new deal.
Virgin and Stagecoach are bidding for the West Coast Partnership deal in a joint venture with SNCF, in which Stagecoach holds 50% equity, SNCF 30% and Virgin 20%. Also shortlisted to bid are FirstGroup and Trenitalia in a 70:30 joint venture, and a joint venture between MTR and Guangshen Railway, supported by sub-contractors Deloitte, Panasonic, Snowfall, Trainline.com and WSP Parsons Brinckerhoff.