Prime Minister Boris Johnson has alerted the public to more strike action as Downing Street said it would “not give in” to rail union demands.
Mr Johnson warned commuters they must be ready to “stay the course” and urged rail bosses and unions to agree on a modernization package to secure the industry’s future.
Mr Johnson told Cabinet that without fundamental changes to how the system works, rail companies risk going bust and passengers are faced with ever-higher fares that could ultimately lead them to abandon train travel.
The Prime Minister addressed his team on Tuesday as commuters suffered the biggest rail strike in a generation, leaving millions of people trapped in transport misery. Further measures by the RMT union are scheduled for Thursday and Saturday.
Mr Johnson called on the “union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the railway companies” and agree to a package of reforms.
Some 40,000 Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union members at Network Rail and 13 train operators have pulled out in a bitter dispute over pay, jobs and working conditions.
The strike is causing “significant disruption and inconvenience across the country,” the prime minister said.
The action makes it “harder for people to come to work, risk appointments, make it difficult for children to take exams – all sorts of unnecessary annoyances”.
Mr Johnson set out why he thought the strikes were “so wrong and so unnecessary”, citing the level of support the industry has been offered during the pandemic and the “colossal” investments in rail infrastructure.
“We believe in our railroads, we believe in our railroad infrastructure as an essential part of national alignment,” he said.
But he added that in order to make the promised investments, we need to “reform the way the railroad works”.
“It can’t be that some ticket offices … sell about one ticket an hour,” he said.
“We have to get these employees out from behind glass panes, onto the platforms, to interact with the passengers.”
But in a sign that there could be more trouble as a result of the row between RMT, Network Rail and railway companies, Mr Johnson said: “I’m afraid we all need – and I say this to the country as a whole – we need to prepare to stay the course.
“To stay on course, because these reforms, these improvements in the way we operate our railroads, are in the interest of the traveling public, they’re going to help lower costs for fare payers across the country.”
But the modernization program is also in workers’ interests because “if we don’t do that, these great companies, this great industry, will continue to suffer financially, they will go bankrupt and as a result they will have to increase ticket prices even more”.
That would lead to the “catastrophe” of declining rail usage, he said.
“This government was elected to do the difficult things and stay the course,” Johnson said as he urged ministers to back Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.
Downing Street highlighted “old-fashioned approaches” in the industry “that have no place in the modern workplace”.
There were examples of “employees refusing to share vans,” blocking apps and “limiting use of technology,” managers only being able to assign entire teams of workers, “regardless of the size of the task.”
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: “The Prime Minister believes it is in the long-term interests of both the country and the public not to give in to some of these demands which would prevent us from modernizing the railways.”
It was ultimately up to the unions whether there would be any further industrial action after the train strike on Saturday.
“We do not want this to be imposed on the population for longer than necessary and people’s confidence in using our rails damaged for longer than necessary,” said the spokesman.
“But it’s very much up to the unions to decide.”
Faced with the prospect of unions elsewhere in the economy taking action in a possible “summer of discontent” as wages fail to keep pace with rising inflation, Downing Street said preparations were in place to mitigate strikes.
“There is certainly a lot of work going on across government to mitigate any disruption that we might see from strikes,” the spokesman said.
“Of course, any kind of strike will be disruptive, but we can take steps to mitigate it.”
The cabinet meeting was chaired by Mr Johnson, just over 24 hours after his sinus surgery.
His spokesman said: “He is in very good health.”