Comment: Trains are stuck in an analogue age

The first re-branded and re-privatised East Coast Virgin Trains left Kings Cross station for Edinburgh yesterday at 11am, promising a new era of rail travel for passengers.

After five years of (reasonably successful) public ownership, Intercity Railways – the name for the consortium between Stagecoach and Virgin) – is promising new trains, more frequent services, better customer service and even hot food delivered to passengers’ seats.

Sounds good – if it comes true.

Rather disappointingly, when it comes to specifics Virgin are a bit vaguer.

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Reliable wifi and mobile service is a must for passengers from Edinburgh. Whether travelling for business or leisure the ability to keep in touch with friends, deal with e-mails or even check journey information is vital on a four-and-a-half hour journey to London.

When asked about this yesterday David Horne, managing director of Virgin Trains East Coast, would only say that free wifi was an “aspiration” and mentioned nothing about a reliable signal.

As if to demonstrate this, his mobile connection cut out twice while on the phone to our journalist.

While wifi is free in first class, East Coast currently charges £4.95 thereafter or £9.95 for 24 hours. And most travellers will tell you the service is wholly unreliable.

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Digital connectivity is vital in 21st century Britain and internet access should be a priority to attract passengers, particularly those on longer journeys from Scotland.

This shouldn’t be just an aspiration, it should be a key goal for the term on the franchise.

The rail watchdog Passenger Focus has said that improvements to wifi are the top priority for passengers in the coming years.

So, forget the fancy red livery, and let’s get down to making our east coast rail network ready for the digital age. Or else we might be yet again wondering why the private sector has failed to deliver on the east coast line.