WATCH: First Sunderland Virgin train arrives in London King's Cross

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The red carpet was rolled out as Virgin Trains launched its new service to Sunderland.

Not only has the Spirit of Sunderland been named in honour of the city, the engines have also been personalised with Wearside landmarks, including Wearmouth Bridge and Penshaw Monument.

The service, which runs along the East Coast mainline, is the earliest train to leave Sunderland Station each week day at 5.40am, arriving at 9.08am and returning at 8pm.

Virgin Trains bosses say they invested in the service to meet business travellers and day trippers' desire to be in the Capital earlier in the morning.

Business, civic and community leaders joined Virgin Trains on-board both inaugural services, with the new Sunderland service being met at London King’s Cross Station by the UK Rail Minister, Claire Perry MP, who officially named the train.

Speaking to the Echo, she said: "The demand has been there for a long time, Sunderland is a thriving city and we are really trying to better the service in the East Coast, particularly in the North East."

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See our live train launch blog
The new service, which was launched on the same day as a route to Stirling, marks a major milestone in Virgin Trains’ ambitious plans to transform services on its east coast route, which include a £21million overhaul of its fleet of 45 trains. More than £40m has been committed to the fleet since the company launched its east coast services in March, when it spelt out plans to invest £140million over eight years.

The rail minister added: "As a one nation government, we know that transport doesn’t just help hardworking people get around, it helps them get on. These new services will provide better journeys for customers and boost economic ties between the north east and London, stimulating growth and helping rebalance our economy.

“These new services are further proof that the new east coast franchise is delivering real benefits for customers across the UK. We are also proud that passengers on the east coast route will also benefit from the introduction of new government supported Intercity Express Programme trains from 2018.”

A fleet of 65 brand new Virgin Trains will also be introduced on the east coast from 2018. The trains will be built by Hitachi at its plant based in Newton Aycliffe, County Durham.

Rail Minister Claire Perry and Councillor Harry Trueman are presented with a Spirit of Sunderland plaque.

Rail Minister Claire Perry and Councillor Harry Trueman are presented with a Spirit of Sunderland plaque.

David Horne, Managing Director of Virgin Trains on its east coast route, said: “This is a hugely exciting day for us as we launch more services, and add Sunderland to the Virgin rail map.

Business and leisure customers have been calling for more early morning departures that will give them a longer day in London, and we’re delighted to be delivering on our promise by launching these new services.”

Sam Jessup, group design manager for Virgin Trains, came up with the design for the Wearside wrap on the Spirit of Sunderland engine.

He said: "We wanted to do something special to celebrate and commemorate the fact that Virgin Trains has come to Sunderland. In the design I wanted to bring a flavour of the city, so I spoke to local businesses and the council about what was important to them. So we have the Tall Ship to celebrate the Tall Ships Race coming to Sunderland, the Red Arrows to mark the International Airshow and, of course, a footballer."

Councillor Harry Trueman, Deputy Leader of Sunderland Council, added: “We welcome this latest investment, which helps demonstrate continuing international business confidence in our city.

"Giving train passengers more flexible, regular travel options between Sunderland and King’s Cross can only be good for the local economy and I hope that these new direct services will become popular.

"An effective transport infrastructure is vital to our economic growth, and we will continue to work with our regional and business partners to provide this.”

The service builds on the city's links to Capital, offering an alternative time to the existing Grand Central trains.

Denise Blas will be one of the customer service assistants on board the new service.

The mum-of-five from Roker, said: "Being from Sunderland, I was over the moon when I found out the service was coming to Sunderland. As an employee, it doesn't change my job, but as a customer it's a great service to use with my family."

Ticket prices on Spirit of Sunderland start from £68.