Company tweets asking woman if she would prefer to be called pet or love when she said manager had called her ‘honey’

Virgin Trains has apologised after its official Twitter account compounded a customer’s complaint about sexist language by asking whether she would prefer to be called “pet” or “love”.

On a day when rail passengers around the country expressed dismay after the biggest rise in fares since 2013, its social media staff inflamed more anger after apparently mocking the woman.

Emily Cole tweeted that she had been “dismissed with that hideously patronising word … honey” by a train manager, after attempting to discuss a problem.

Virgin Trains East Coast replied: “Sorry for the mess up Emily, would you prefer ‘pet’ or ‘love’ next time?”

Cole said she was stunned by the response. She wrote: “Wonderful to see that Virgin take complaints of rude and misogynistic behaviour seriously. Stunned.”

Virgin later deleted the tweet, saying: “We apologise unreservedly for this tweet and for the offence caused.”

On a bad day for Virgin, one of the most prominent figures in rail protests was forced to conduct broadcast interviews via its intermittent train wifi after being stranded on a broken train.

The shadow transport secretary, Andy McDonald, was unable to reach rallies in the north of England on Tuesday morning after his train ground to a halt minutes after departing from Stevenage. McDonald started the day by denouncing the privatised rail system outside King’s Cross station in London, before taking a train to Stevenage to meet other protesters.

However, his onward Virgin train to Leeds, where he was meant to join more campaigners and give a string of broadcast interviews to highlight the 3.4% increase in rail fares, broke down.

Contacted by the Guardian at 12.20pm, McDonald confirmed he was still stuck on the Virgin Trains East Coast service between Stevenage and Grantham. “It’s all been cancelled. We’ve been here for getting on an hour and a half,” he said.

Referencing the decision by the transport secretary, Chris Grayling, to allow Stagecoach to end its contract to run the east coast service three years early, before almost £2bn in premium payments were due, McDonald said: “They’ve had the benefit of a £2bn bailout and a 3.6% hike in fares and it still doesn’t seem like it’s going to be any better.”

While his Labour counterpart was stuck, Grayling was in sunnier climes on the day of the biggest fare increase in five years, on a trade visit to Qatar.

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