Passengers from London to Manchester holding off-peak rail tickets face a gap of almost five hours between the trains they can catch, as a much-reduced service continues.
Between Monday and Thursday, the evening peak leaving the capital already extends for four hours, from 3 to 7pm.
But with the current service cuts that will remain in force for another four weeks, travellers who want a cheap, “walk-up” fare with flexibility are barred for four hours and 45 minutes.
During the peak period, the standard off-peak single of £66.10 nearly trebles to £184.40 for an anytime one-way ticket.
While advance tickets are available for less than this on many trains, a series of test bookings made by The Independent has found that the usual advance fare during the afternoon/evening peak is £143.60 – more than twice the flexible off-peak fare.
Anyone who misses the 2.35pm from London Euston to Manchester Piccadilly by one minute, and who does not want to pay these fares, faces a wait until 7.20pm for the next direct service.
Passengers heading for Birmingham must work around a gap in available trains extending even longer. The last off-peak departure from London before “rush hour” is at 2.38pm, with the first possible service after that at 7.32pm.
The four-hour afternoon/evening peak has been in place for many years. But timetable cuts have extended the effective duration. The train operator Avanti West Coast has, in common with other rail firms, cut its schedules because of the effects of the Omicron variant on both staff and passenger numbers.
The former three-times-hourly services linking both Manchester and Birmingham with London have been cut to a basic timetable of one train every 60 minutes to and from each city.
A spokesperson for Avanti West Coast said: “With fewer people travelling at the moment, we have implemented a reduced timetable so we provide an essential service whilst also ensuring value for money for taxpayers.
“It also means we can minimise last-minute cancellations due to Covid-related absences.
“Anyone who booked a journey before the timetable change and now finds their train isn’t running, can travel on the service before or after their original booking, regardless of peak restrictions.
“We have also made more lower cost advance fares available in the peak period. For example, the 3.20pm from Euston to Manchester has tickets available for around £45, even a few days out – and that’s cheaper than the off peak walk-up fare.”
Morning travellers to London are also adversely affected – with Manchester travellers on Avanti West Coast unable to get to the capital before the afternoon.
The standard restriction is that any train arriving in London before 11.30am from Monday to Thursday is regarded as peak. Previously passengers from Manchester could board the 9.35am to London, arriving at 11.40am. Now, the first is the 9.55am, arriving at 12.04pm.
Travellers needing a “walk-up” ticket who want an earlier arrival can trade speed for savings – taking a train from Manchester to Crewe, and connecting there for the first off-peak London Northwestern train, which costs £38.10 and arrives in the capital at 10.30am.
With multiple stops along the way, the journey from Crewe to London takes around 45 minutes longer than Avanti West Coast.
Avanti West Coast is expected to restore some services from the end of February.
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