Train operator Avanti West Coast was ordered to stop issuing tickets days before travel.
The rail regulator, the Office of Rail and Roads (ORR), has warned the company that it must submit an improved timetable recovery plan by February 2 or face “formal measures”.
Avanti West Coast operates trains on the West Coast Main Line between London Euston and Glasgow Central, with detachments to Birmingham, North Wales, Liverpool, Manchester and Edinburgh.
Passengers who wanted to book tickets for weekend travel this month were only able to buy tickets a few days in advance, leading to claims that many people are being denied cheaper tickets.
Weekday tickets were also released much later than the 12-week booking period normally used by operators.
Avanti West Coast said the delay was due to a requirement to create adapted timetables – which is being done in partnership with Network Rail – during engineering work.
Tickets can only be made available for sale once timetables have been confirmed.
Avanti West Coast initially made “reasonable progress” on an improvement plan set up in September 2022 that saw passengers receive more travel booking notifications in the run-up to Christmas, but “the position has deteriorated” this year, according to ORR.
The current plans for February show “a better picture of weekday travel, but still fail to meet passenger needs for weekend travel,” the regulator said.
Stephanie Tobyn, director of strategy, policy and reform at ORR, said: “Passengers are rightly frustrated that the situation has deteriorated so quickly after the recovery plan was firmly launched late last year.
“By February 2, we expect Avanti to identify what went wrong and outline how it intends to return to publishing timetables within normal industry timelines so passengers can plan and book journeys with greater confidence.
“Failure to develop an acceptable plan or make improvements may lead to more formal measures.”
By Feb 2, we expect Avanti to identify what went wrong and outline how it intends to return to posting schedules within normal industry timeframes
Stephanie Tobyn, Rail and Road Authority
A spokesperson for Avanti West Coast said: “Unfortunately, some Saturday and Sunday tickets were only available at short notice due to the need to write an unprecedented number of adapted timetables to accommodate industrial activities and engineering work, which has strained the industry’s train planning resources.
“We know this is causing great uncertainty and inconvenience to passengers and we apologize for that.
“We are working with our colleagues at Network Rail to get tickets on sale as soon as possible and we encourage passengers to sign up for ticket alerts.
“We also work closely with ORR and keep them informed.
“Weekend tickets are now on sale until mid-February, and we’ll be selling weekend tickets in six weeks by mid-March.”
Avanti West Coast – FirstGroup joint venture (70%) contract extension in October 2022.
On Monday, it emerged that the operator had canceled the equivalent of around a fifth of its services in the four weeks to January 7.
The company claims that “performance has steadily improved since then.”