But fares expert says the concept infringes the rights of Anytime ticket holders

Passengers on Britain’s premier rail line can now buy Advance train tickets as little as two hours before departure — dramatically reducing the cost of travel between London, Yorkshire and Scotland.

Virgin Trains East Coast has abandoned its former restriction of one minute to midnight the day before travel. Instead, the new deadline is two hours before departure.

For the time being, the option is open only for trains departing after 10am, and on journeys between London and one of 11 key stations. In England, the locations are Peterborough, Grantham, Lincoln, Doncaster and Leeds; Newcastle, Wakefield and Hull are not covered. The Scottish stations are Edinburgh, Kirkcaldy, Dundee, Perth, Aberdeen and Inverness.

Savings on a typical journey researched by The Independent for Friday evening travel show the potential benefits. From Grantham, a passenger prepared to commit to the 7.07pm departure to London King’s Cross would pay £23.50 — less than half the normal £47.50 off-peak single. It is also significantly cheaper than the £37.40 option on Hull Trains, an open-access operator.

Passengers prepared to travel much later, on the 11.19pm Virgin Trains service, can pay just £14.50. First-class travel is also available on this train for £10 more.

Virgin estimates its move will save passengers almost £20,000 a day, based on current buying patterns. 

The train operator’s commercial director, Suzanne Donnelly, said: “Virgin Trains has always positioned itself on the side of customers and we have a strong record of innovating for the benefit of rail passengers.

“We’re providing customers with a more affordable and relaxing alternative to road or air travel and we’re proud to be leading the way with changes that will ensure customers get the best value for money.”

The move emulates CrossCountry, which sells Advance tickets up to 15 minutes before departure. The two train operators compete between York and Edinburgh, which is not covered by the new Virgin Trains same-day scheme. On Friday evening, the cheapest Virgin Trains one-way fare is £90.50 — but travellers can save £55 by opting for the CrossCountry departures at 7.04pm or 8.32pm.

While passengers’ groups are broadly in favour of the concept of Advance tickets on the day, the UK’s leading rail fares expert called the move “commercially immoral”. 

Barry Doe said: “Someone can turn up on the day and pay a walk-on single. He takes a vacant seat, only to be told, perhaps halfway through the journey, that that seat has now been reserved and is required from the next stop by someone who booked at home after the first customer, and paid a great deal less, yet now claims the seat.

“It’s disgraceful and undermines the whole concept of the difference between Advance and walk-on and the DfT should never have allowed it.”

Mark Smith, the founder of the Seat61.com international rail website, said the move was "good in some ways", but added: "The Cross-Country scheme relies on one coach having notices saying seats may become reserved during the journey. This causes many problems - indeed, I only saw the notices myself amongst all the signage overload once I had sat down and occupied a seat, and it is very annoying to find someone turn up for an apparently unreserved seat and claim it!"

Virgin Trains says such a problem cannot happen with the current paper-based seating reservation system.

The tickets are available online, at ticket machines and at station travel centres.