Virgin Trains is to provide free wifi for all passengers on it Pendolino services operating the West Coast franchise.

A total of 56 Pendolino trains will be fitted with new onboard equipment at a cost of £7.5 million, with the work starting in May and expected to be completed by January 2019.

Wifi access is currently offered free of charge to first class passengers, with packages available for standard class customers.

The investment follows an agreement with the UK government for the operator’s current franchise – which expires on March 31 – to be extended by one year, with the option for up to a further one-year extension “at the Department for Transport’s discretion”.

Note that the upgrade will only apply to Virgin Trains Pendolino services – the firm also operates Class 221 Super Voyager trainsets. Virgin says that “More than 85 per cent of our customers travel on Pendolinos”.

The operator says that the new onboard technology will be ‘future-proofed’, enabling it to work with 5G mobile phone networks as they become available.

In addition Virgin says that it will investigate eliminating ‘not-spots’ – places where there is no mobile phone coverage – on its network. The operator cites examples of these including cuttings and tunnels, and points out that “where there is no mobile phone coverage there is also no wifi available”.

Other initiatives as part of the contract extension include all station ticket machines being upgraded to accept contactless payment, £3 million to improve station facilities and train interiors, additional staff at busy times, an improved customer contact system, and new apprenticeship opportunities.

The Virgin Group owns a 51 per cent stake in the current West Coast franchise, with Stagecoach owning 49 per cent. The group is set to team up with French rail company SNCF to bid for the new West Coast Partnership franchise, to incorporate existing West Coast mainline services plus the forthcoming HS2 high-speed line.

The separate Virgin Trains East Coast franchise – a joint venture between Stagecoach (90 per cent) and the Virgin Group (10 per cent) has recently run into financial difficulties, with Secretary of State for Transport Chris Grayling admitting that the franchise “will in due course run out of money”.