Boris Johnson primed the audience to prepare for more chaos on the railroads by emphasizing the need for modernization and reform in the industry.
He warned passengers that they must be ready to “stay the course” and urged railway bosses and unions to agree on a package to safeguard the future of the industry.
The prime minister told the Cabinet that without fundamental changes to the way the system operates, railway companies are at risk of bankruptcy and passengers face ever-higher prices that could lead them to abandon train travel.
He was speaking as commuters faced chaos on Tuesday during the biggest rail strike in a generation, with more rounds of industrial action on Thursday and Saturday.
Johnson called on the “union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the railroad companies” and agree on a reform package.
Some 40,000 members of the Ferroviário, Marítimo e Transporte (RMT) union of Rede Ferroviária and 13 train operators left in a fierce dispute over wages, jobs and conditions.
The strike is causing “significant disruption and inconvenience across the country,” the prime minister said.
The move is making it “harder for people to get to work, risking people’s appointments, making it harder for kids to get tested – all sorts of unnecessary aggravations.”
Johnson explained why he believes strikes are “so wrong and unnecessary”, pointing to the levels of support offered to the industry during the pandemic and the “colossal” investment in rail infrastructure.
“We believe in our railroads, we believe in our rail infrastructure as a vital part of leveling across the country,” he said.
But he added that to make the promised investments “we have to reform the way the railways work”.
“It can’t be right that some box offices … are selling about one ticket an hour,” he said.
“We need to get this team from behind the glass, to the platforms, interacting with passengers.”
This Government was elected to make things difficult and keep the course
Prime Minister Boris Johnson
But in a sign that there could be more trouble to come as a result of the dispute between RMT, Network Rail and the train companies, Johnson said: “We need, I fear, everyone – and I say this to the country as a whole – we need prepare to stay the course.
“To stay the course, because these reforms, these improvements to the way we operate our railroads are in the interests of the traveling public, they will help reduce costs for ticket payers across the country.”
But the modernization program is also in the interests of workers because “if we don’t do that, these big companies, this big industry, will face more financial pressure, it will go bankrupt and the result will be that they will have to raise the cost of tickets even more.”
This would result in the “disaster” of declining rail use, he warned.
“This administration was elected to do the hard stuff and stay the course,” Johnson said as he urged ministers to back Transport Secretary Grant Shapps.