Official Condemns U.K. Rail Strikes

LONDON -- U.K. Transport Secretary Stephen Byers has urged all sides in the rail dispute to go to arbitration, saying strikes had no place on today's railways, according to a report from BBC News.

Mr Byers was speaking at a meeting of the National Rail Conference in London as angry train passengers face the threat of more strikes in the next week.

The embattled minister used the speech to say the masterplan for improving the UK's ailing rail network must tackle poor performance and reliability.

Passengers deserved better service and the strikes had not helped matters, Mr Byers told the audience at the Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre.

Strikes ahead

Talks to prevent guards on Arriva trains staging a 48-hour stoppage over pay on Thursday and Friday broke down on Wednesday.

Members of the Rail Maritime and Transport (RMT) on South West Trains are also planning further strikes.

There are worries too that the London Underground could be hit by strikes in a separate pay dispute.

Mr Byers told the conference: "Strike action is in no-one's interest...

"In this day and age, disputes over pay should not give rise to strikes. Negotiation, not strike action, must be the only way forward.

"Arbitration must be a better way forward than strike action - action which is really just a matter of strength."

Boosting performance

Saying the government was on the side of passengers, not unions or management, Mr Byers warned strikes would "turn people off the rail network".

He also outlined how the measures in the Strategic Rail Authority plan unveiled earlier this month aimed to improve the railway network nationwide.

Mr Byers said: "The public want simple things. They want reliable trains that turn up on time and arrive on time and stations that are clean and safe."

He called on all train operators to examine how they could improve performance with the help of the SRA.

The transport secretary promised he would not be distracted from getting on with the job.

"I am not going to be judged by tomorrow's headlines, I will be judged at the end of the time of the next general election."

Transport underspend

Mr Byers has continued to come under attack after it emerged his department failed to spend 350m of its capital budget last year.

The minister insisted last week he had introduced steps to reduce the underspend - currently running at 5.5% of the capital budget.

But his Conservative opposite number Theresa May cast doubt on whether he would be able to deliver the 10-year plan.

When he unveiled the blueprint, Mr Byers said a 67.5bn package of measures to upgrade the railways would "put passengers first".

But the plan relies on private investors matching public investment.

Tube dispute

As well as problems on the mainline rail network, London Underground also faces the threat of strikes.

The leaders of the two biggest rail unions meet in London to discuss a row over Tube drivers' pay.

Aslef and the RMT union have accused London Underground of reneging on a deal agreed last year to avert industrial action, a claim the company denies.

The dispute centres on different rates of pay for drivers of passenger trains and others who drive engineering trains.

London Underground said it had been "honest and open" in its dealings with the unions, adding that threatening strikes was "unnecessarily premature and aggressive".

Thousands of passengers endured disruption earlier this month because of strikes on South West Trains services.