Commuters must be prepared to “stay the course” in the face of the “unnecessary aggravation” caused by rail strikes, Boris Johnson has warned.
He made the remarks came at the start of a Cabinet meeting on the first day of walk-outs across the network that are the biggest for three decades, leaving millions facing inconvenience.
The RMT union is in dispute with rail bosses over pay, jobs and conditions as they attempt a shake-up in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic – which has transformed passenger behaviour.
Mr Johnson told Cabinet colleagues that reform of the network was needed as “colossal” investment in projects such as HS2 take shape – and his remarks seemed to imply that commuters should brace themselves for more inconvenience as unions resist.
The PM said: “We need the union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the train companies and get on with it.
“We need, I’m afraid, everybody, and I say this to the country as a whole, we need to get ready to stay the course.
“These reforms, these improvements in the way we run our railways are in the interests of the travelling public, they will help to cut costs for farepayers up and down the country.”
The remarks were made to cameras allowed in to film part of the Cabinet meeting but without Mr Johnson or any other minister taking questions from journalists.
Mr Johnson said the strike was causing “significant disruption and inconvenience up and down the country” and was “so wrong and unnecessary”.
It was making it “more difficult for people to get to work, risking people’s appointments, making it more difficult for kids to sit exams – all sorts of unnecessary aggravations”.
He said the government believed in railways as a “vital part of levelling up across the country” but that without modernisation, financial pressure on them would push fares higher resulting in the “disaster” of declining rail use.
Around 40,000 members of the RMT union at Network Rail and 13 train operators are walking out on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday this week.
The union is asking for a 7% pay rise – lower than the current rate of inflation but higher than the offer of 2%, topped up with a possible further 1% linked to efficiency savings, that they say employers are offering.
It accuses the government of stoking the confrontation by withdrawing billions in public grants for the railways and tying the hands of publicly-owned track operator Network Rail and the privately-owned train operating companies.
RMT general secretary Mick Lynch told Sky News that without a change of direction from the government and employers, more strike action was “inevitable”, and called for wider co-ordinated action across trade unions to try to “rebalance the inequalities in our society”.
Mr Lynch said: “My message to the travelling public is that we’re very sorry for the disruption that’s been caused.
“We don’t want to do that. We want to get a settlement to this dispute.”
Earlier, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps told Sky News the government plans to change the law to ensure that the impact of “militant” union action is less damaging in the future – but that nothing could be done to “change the reality” of this week’s disruption.
Ministers want to change the rules to allow workers from elsewhere in an organisation, or who are employed by agencies, to fill in for those on strike, and to put in place laws ensuring “minimum service levels” even during a walk-out.
However the plan regarding agency workers has already been rejected as “unworkable” in a joint response by the recruitment industry’s main trade body as well as the TUC.
Mr Shapps continued to resist calls to get involved personally with negotiations in the current dispute though admitting that the government was ultimately the “paymaster” setting the funding remit for the railways.
Pat McFadden, Labour’s shadow chief secretary to the treasury, said the strike was an “enormous inconvenience to the public” with “perhaps the bigger threat of ongoing industrial disputes through the summer”.
He told Sky News: “No one wants to see this. We want to see this brought to an end as quickly as possible with a deal that allows the railways to work and the travelling public to get to work.
“We understand why people are pressing for pay rises but it’s far better for these things to be resolved in a proper way, in a negotiation.”
Some Labour MPs have joined striking workers on picket lines though the party’s leadership has banned front benchers from doing so.
They included junior members of its shadow government team such as Nav Mishra, an opposition whip, who said on Twitter: “As a proud trade unionist, I stand with all workers on our rail network who are taking industrial action to fight for their jobs & keep passengers safe.”
Anas Sarwar, Labour’s leader in the Scottish parliament, tweeted pictures of himself on a picket line, expressing “solidarity” with the striking workers and saying the crisis was “entirely of the government’s making”.
The party’s deputy leader Angela Rayner said on Twitter: “Workers have been left with no choice. No one takes strike action lightly.
“I will always defend their absolute right to do so for fairness at work.”