Stephen Byers came under fresh attack yesterday for going on holiday to India while a rail strike caused chaos for thousands of travellers.
The beleaguered Transport Secretary was accused of deserting his post at a time that Britain's busiest commuter network ground to a virtual halt and when the industry was still in crisis because of Railtrack's financial woes.
The first of two 48-hour stoppages by the RMT union at South West Trains led to the cancellation of nine out of ten of its services into London Waterloo. The industrial action continues today and resumes on Monday and Tuesday.
The 170 services that ran – 10 per cent of the normal total – were packed with angry commuters, although others decided to use the industrial action as an excuse for a long weekend. Disruption is expected to be worse next week when children return to school.
Despite Mr Byers' absence, ministers and the new chairman of the Government's Strategic Rail Authority, Richard Bowker, are understood to have urged South West Trains to hold the line against the union's pay demands.
Further strikes could be called unless there is a breakthrough in the dispute over wages and a separate row over the alleged victimisation of RMT representatives.
The RMT has rejected a 7.6 per cent wage offer over two years because it wants the deal to run for 18 months, in line with a pay agreement given to SWT drivers.
Andrew Haines, managing director at the train operator, said the company's proposals on pay had been withdrawn because of the union's decision to press ahead with the stoppages.
A spokesman for the union said the industrial action had been solidly supported by its 3,500 members and more walkouts could not be ruled out.
Eric Pickles, the shadow Transport Secretary, said: "Stephen Byers continues to show great consistency in his leadership of the railways. At the first sign of the slightest trouble, he goes to ground. Given that he was so keen to assume responsibility for the rail network, we find it truly staggering that he should desert his post when thousands of people face misery on the railways on a daily basis."
A spokesman for the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions said Mr Byers had gone on holiday "shortly before the New Year" and would return on Monday. Dismissing Mr Pickles' criticisms, he said: "We have duty ministers and there are things such as telephones, the internet and e-mail.
"We do live in the 21st century and it's not as though people are out of contact for months."
The intervention in the strike by the Strategic Rail Authority (SRA) was prompted by fears that taxpayers would ultimately have to pick up the bill for a rash of big wage demands elsewhere on the network.
The Government already faces the prospect of having to pump billions of pounds of extra cash into the rail network after the collapse of Railtrack. Industry estimates yesterday put the potential increase in the wage bills of the train operators at £500m to £1bn over the next 20 years.
The four days of strikes at SWT will cost £5m in lost revenue – more than the entire cost of funding this year's increased pay offer. However, the SWT management has been told to stand firm by the SRA and the Treasury. A rail industry source said."They are running scared of this spreading right across the network, resulting in spiralling costs for the train operators which will be passed very quickly on to the taxpayer,"Reuse content