The transport secretary has claimed taxpayers paid more than £300,000 to keep each rail worker in their job during the Covid pandemic – and insisted that “reform of the rail industry” is essential.
Mark Harper was answering questions from by MPs on the Transport Select Committee on Wednesday morning.
Over the next month, members of the RMT union are scheduled to strike on 12 days. It is the largest industrial action on the railways since the 1980s, in a dispute over pay, job security and working arrangements.
Mr Harper said: “It’s not just a pay dispute. It’s about reform of the rail industry, in the context of the fact that the taxpayer’s put £31bn of support into the rail industry over the past two years – obviously driven by Covid and the fact that a significant number of passengers have not returned to the railways.
“That’s equivalent to over £1,000 per household in the country, and over £300,000 per rail worker.”
He said that no staff on train operators contracted by the Department for Transport (DfT) had been furloughed.
“That’s the context of why we need reform. We’ve protected railway jobs,” he said.
“We’ve only seen about 80 per cent of passenger numbers return to the railway.”
Earlier the RMT union said: “Passenger numbers are back to 99 per cent of pre-pandemic levels according to the latest data.”
The union rejected the latest pay offer from 14 train operators on Sunday.
It involved 4 per cent pay rises this year and next, contingent on the closure of some ticket offices and expansion of driver-controlled operation of train doors, known as DOO.
The general secretary of the RMT, Mick Lynch, said: “We have rejected this offer as it does not meet any of our criteria for securing a settlement on long term job security, a decent pay rise and protecting working conditions.
“The RDG and DfT who sets their mandate, both knew this offer would not be acceptable to RMT members.
“If this plan was implemented, it would not only mean the loss of thousands of jobs but the use of unsafe practices such as DOO and would leave our railways chronically understaffed.”
Mr Harper repeated declined to answer questions from Labour’s Ben Bradshaw about whether No 10 or the Treasury had insisted on expansion of driver-controlled operation as a condition for the train operators’ pay offer.
The transport secretary said: “I’m not going to provide a running commentary.”
A Network Rail proposal of 5 per cent this year and 4 per cent next has been put to a referendum with the union recommending it is rejected.
Mr Harper said: “I would still urge the unions to keep talking and put those deals to their members with at least with a neutral recommendation and call off the strikes before Christmas which are going to be so damaging to individuals and businesses.
“The government will do what we can to try to encourage both employers and unions to keep talking.”
Train cancellations have begun to be made ahead of next week’s strikes, which will see 48-hour walk-outs on 13-14 and 16-17 December.