Boris Johnson prepared the audience to prepare for more railroad chaos 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.”
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.
Downing Street said it was ultimately up to the unions whether there would be more industrial action after Saturday’s rail strike.
“This is a very important issue for unions,” said the prime minister’s official spokesman.
“We certainly hope that this week’s outage will be the last.
“We don’t want this to be inflicted on the public for longer than necessary and, in fact, to undermine people’s confidence in using our railroads for longer than necessary.
“But it is up to the unions to decide.”
With the prospect of unions in other parts of the economy taking action against a potential “summer of discontent” as wages fail to keep up with rising inflation, Downing Street said preparations were under way to mitigate the strikes.
“There is certainly a lot of work going on across the government to mitigate any disruption we might see from the strike action,” the spokesperson said.
“Clearly, 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 undergoing sinus surgery.
His spokesman said: “He is in very good health.”