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Buffering! What happened to the Virgin Trains East Coast promise of free Wi-Fi on trains?

mabrams's picture
03.03.2015 | mabrams | Fair fares now

On Sunday the East Coast Mainline Franchise was taken over by Virgin Trains East Coast. Since the franchise was awarded to them back in November I have been following the tweets of the ‘Save East Coast Rewards’ who have been campaigning for the East Coast Trains Reward loyalty scheme to be adopted by the new franchisee. 

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Virgin Trains East Coast has instead opted for the Nectar points reward scheme which according to ‘Save East Coast Rewards’ is not nearly as generous.

It was Save East Coast rewards that alerted me to a key pledge made by Virgin East Coast to provide free Wi-Fi on its trains. Two days after the launch of the franchise it seems that this pledge is being rolled back. On 27 November 2014, Stagecoach issued a press release after winning the bid for the franchise which outlined what the franchise will provide for passengers, including this line:

  • New technology – new website, smartphone apps, interactive touchscreen information points at major stations, portable technology for staff, free WiFi on trains and stations.

On 2 March 2015, Virgin Trains East Coast issued another press release with the free Wi-Fi pledge now removed and changed to 'improved Wi-Fi'. It read as follows:

  • New technology – new website, smartphone apps, interactive touchscreen information points at major stations, portable technology for staff, and improved Wi-Fi.

Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin MP even mentioned free Wi-Fi in his statement to Parliament on 27 November 2014 about the franchise award: 

"This franchise will provide over £140 million in investment for passengers:

  • faster journey times
  • new trains
  • more services
  • 50% more capacity
  • lower headline fares
  • free wi-fi
  • connects 5 towns that have never been connected to this franchise before"

In an interview with the Guardian coinciding with the launch of Virgin Trains East Coast this week, Rail Minister Claire Perry also mentioned the promise of free Wi-Fi:

"One key contention of private operators’ supporters is that their innovation and customer service has increased passenger numbers. Pressed for specifics, Perry says: “There will be free Wi-Fi, customer offers. There will be Nectar points. When is the last time that you heard of good old British Rail offering any kind of customer incentives?”

Free Wi-Fi is not the most important issue for passengers but it is vital that promises made to passengers are kept. The East Coast Main Line carries thousands of business travellers every day who would benefit a great deal from free Wi-Fi. The Government has recognised its value at the highest levels, as David Cameron announced in a recent Prime Minister’s Questions that £50m funding was being committed to introduce free Wi-Fi on four franchises from 2017.

Virgin Trains East Coast were not one of those four, but from what I can see for some reason free Wi-Fi was not a requirement in the Government’s Invitation to Tender for the East Coast Franchise. 

This is a matter of principle and we would really like to get to the bottom of this. We have written to both Virgin Trains East Coast and the Rail Minister about this as it is vital that pledges made in railway franchises are stuck to by the letter.

Watch this space for updates and please follow Save East Coast Rewards on Twitter

UPDATE: Grahame Morris MP for Easington has tabled a Parliamentary Question to the Secretary of State for Transport Patrick McLoughlin MP asking: "by what date it is scheduled that free wifi will be introduced on Virgin East Coast Main Line trains or at stations on that line?" 

UPDATE 2: Claire Perry MP Minister for Rail has responded to Grahame Morris MP's Parliamentary Question saying: "Virgin Trains East Coast will introduce free wi-fi at Stations during 2016. On board wi-fi will continue to be made available free to first class customers from the start of the franchise and Virgin Trains East Coast’s current plans include a number of initiatives that will see the phased roll out of free wi-fi to an increasing number of passengers between 2015 and 2018. The exact timings will depend on a number of external factors including improvements to line side equipment."

UPDATE 3: Virgin East Coast have today (05/03/2015) responded with......

"Re East Coast Wifi – there are concrete plans to upgrade the onboard wifi similar to what we are doing on West Coast – this will probably coincide with the arrival of new trains in 2018 but there may be some improvements before then. We are also installing free wifi at our stations.To get free wifi for all passengers on board however, there needs to be trackside infrastructure installed as well as the on-train upgrade. It’s simply not possible to provide it via the train only – the technology doesn’t exist. If we tried, the bandwidth would not be enough for all passengers – and as a result no-one would have a satisfactory experience. Our clear aim and desire is to make it free for all – but that depends on support from the government and Network Rail for trackside infrastructure. Rest assured we will continue discussions on this subject as our aims precisely coincide with the wants of passengers!"

Good to get a response but still does not quite answer the question of why there was an announcement of free Wi-Fi on trains in November by both Virgin/Stagecoach and the DfT though

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