Transport Secretary Mark Harper has urged rail unions to give “at least a neutral recommendation” when putting offers aimed at resolving industrial disputes to their members.
The Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union will press ahead with strikes from next week after it recommended its members should reject the latest offer from Network Rail.
Mr Harper told the Commons Transport Select Committee: “I would still urge the unions to keep talking, put those deals to their members with at least a neutral recommendation, and call off the strikes before Christmas which are going to be so damaging to individuals and businesses across a whole range of sectors.
“The Government will do what we can to try and encourage both employers and unions to keep talking.”
Mr Harper told the committee that more than 60% of the Department for Transport’s spending on capital and revenue is on rail, despite train travel only making up 10% of journey miles.
He added: “I just think we have to get that into a better sense of balance. That’s what we’re trying to do with the unions.”
Mr Harper said the walkout by Network Rail workers between Christmas Eve and December 27 will cause “more inconvenience to passengers” because it means planned maintenance will need to be rescheduled.
He told the committee: “One of the things that Network Rail is now looking at, given the strikes that were called by the RMT on Network Rail, is looking at that £120 million worth of essential maintenance work to see the extent to which that’s affected.
“Of course, even though that may not impact passenger services, it absolutely will affect the reliability of the railway.
“Of course it’s done at Christmas because – although I recognise it sometimes causes inconvenience to people at Christmas – it is done then because that is the least busy time.
“If that work isn’t done at the Christmas period, it means it will have to be done at other times of the year, which will cause more inconvenience to passengers.”
Mr Harper was pressed by committee member Ben Bradshaw on claims that the Rail Delivery Group’s offer to the RMT was conditional on accepting driver-only operated (DOO) trains at all companies on the insistence of Downing Street.
Labour MP Mr Bradshaw asked Mr Harper: “Has the issue of driver-only trains been introduced by Number 10 or the Treasury at the last minute?
“It wasn’t on the table before.”
Mr Harper said: “We’re very clear we need to see reform.
“On the specifics about detail, detailed negotiations are taking place between employers and trade unions.
“It’s not the Government’s role to micromanage the detail of the reform.”
DOO involves the train driver being in control of opening and closing the train’s doors.
It is already used by some rail companies such as Govia Thameslink Railway but is a controversial issue due to concerns about what it means for the role of guards.
Mr Harper said he could not give the committee “a specific time” on when a controversial Bill to introduce laws requiring minimum service levels during industrial action will get its second reading in the Commons.
He added: “Usually legislation that is pushed through rapidly tends to have to be pushed through when there’s a cross-party agreement on that legislation.
“I don’t think (that) is the case here.”