Rail unions warned that strike action across the UK could last for months after last-minute talks failed to avert three days of planned network shutdowns that will disrupt travel for the rest of the week.
The pay and conditions talks between senior rail industry figures and union leaders were held into Monday afternoon but the sides remain deadlocked over a deal and the negotiators declared the walk out would go ahead.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union at Network Rail and 13 train operators will strike on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
Strikes are expected to cause the cancellation of about 80 per cent of train services across Britain on Tuesday.
Train services are expected to be impacted on the days without planned strike action as well due to knock-on effects – with about 60 per cent of normal services running.
London Underground workers will also walk out on Tuesday.
Pupils and parents are being urged to make an alternative plan for getting to school for A-level and GCSE exams on Tuesday and Thursday.
Motorists are warned to expect a surge in traffic as train passengers switch to road transport.
The general secretary of the RMT union, Mick Lynch, said on Monday the industrial action could continue for months.
“Our campaign will run as long as it needs to run until we get a settlement acceptable to our people," he said.
“Whenever we get an offer that is tenable we will put that to our members in a referendum.”
Asked if the strikes could last for months if a deal is not reached Mr Lynch replied: “I think it will, yes.”
He said the RMT believes proposals put forward by the operators are "unacceptable".
“It is clear that the Tory Government, after slashing £4bn of funding from National Rail and Transport for London, has now actively prevented a settlement to this dispute," he said.
“The rail companies have now proposed pay rates that are massively under the relevant rates of inflation, coming on top of the pay freezes of the past few years.
“At the behest of the government, companies are also seeking to implement thousands of job cuts and have failed to give any guarantee against compulsory redundancies.”
Government accuses unions of 'dirty tricks'
On Monday, the government ruled out intervening in the dispute, which will see the country hit by the largest rail strike in 30 years, saying it “wouldn’t be helpful” for ministers to be involved.
The UK's transport secretary Grant Shapps has been forced to hit back at claims that he is “the problem”.
“The actual unions need to sit down with the employers because this is a highly technical discussion around 20 different areas of modernisation that are required on the railway, to make sure the railways can continue to function," he told Sky News.
“We’ve given £16 billion (Dh72bn) of taxpayers’ money through coronavirus to make sure that none of those railway employees lost their jobs. So they need to work on this together between the union and the employers.”
Mr Shapps has criticised the unions and accused them of using "dirty tricks".
“We are now less than eight hours away from the biggest railway strike since 1989," he told the House of Commons.
“A strike orchestrated by some of the best-paid union barons representing some of the better-paid workers in this country, which will cause misery and chaos to millions of commuters.
“This weekend we’ve seen union leaders use all the tricks in the book to confuse, obfuscate, to mislead the public.
“Not only do they wish to drag the railway back to the 1970s, they’re also employing the tactics of bygone unions too – deflecting accountability for their strikes onto others, attempting to shift the blame for their action which will cause disruption and cause damage to millions of people, and claiming that others are somehow preventing an agreement to their negotiation.”
Mr Shapps said the government is “not the employer” and it is for the train operating companies, Network Rail and the unions to come to an agreement.
“We’re all doing our utmost to get the unions and the rail industry to agree a way forward and call off the strikes," he added.
Services on the railways and London Underground will be crippled from Tuesday in a row over pay, jobs and conditions.
The RMT and Unite is also holding a 24-hour walkout on London Underground, which will hugely affect services.
Meanwhile in West Yorkshire, in the north of England, all Arriva bus services have been cancelled due to strike action, which is now entering its third week.
The TUC is calling on the government to adopt a positive role in the dispute, saying it was “inflaming tensions” with comments such as threatening to “revoke” workers’ legal rights.
“Talks are continuing today but the Government won’t be taking part in them," a government spokesman said.
The spokesman said the train operators believed it was not “the government’s place to be at the table and it would not be helpful to the ongoing discussions to insert the government into the negotiating process at this stage”.
TUC says government pitching 'worker against worker'
The TUC said ministers in Westminster were insisting on imposing cuts and planning to change the law so that employers can draft in agency workers during strikes.
“The government has the power to help end this dispute but, rather than working in good faith to find a negotiated settlement, ministers are inflaming tensions and trying to pitch worker against worker," TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said.
“Instead of threatening to rip up their rights, ministers should be getting people around the table to help agree a fair deal.”
Ms O’Grady said nobody takes strike action lightly, but maintained that rail staff have been left with “no other option”.
“Many rail staff who will be hit hardest — such as caterers and cleaners — are on low and average earnings," he said.
"It’s insulting to ask them to take yet another real-terms pay cut when rail companies took £500 million in profits during the pandemic.
“If these cuts go ahead, thousands of safety-critical and front-line jobs will be lost, with train services at risk too.
“We need a better vision for the future of rail than commuters packed on unsafe trains like sardines.”
“Strikes should always be the last resort, not the first, so it is hugely disappointing and premature that the RMT is going ahead with industrial action," the Department for Transport said.
“The government committed £16 billion — or £600 per household — to keep our railways running throughout the pandemic, while ensuring not a single worker lost their job.
“The railway is still on life support, with passenger numbers 25 per cent down, and anything that drives away even more of them risks killing services and jobs.
“Train travel for millions more people is now a choice, not a necessity. Strikes stop our customers choosing rail and they might never return.”
The strikes will affect a number of events, including the Glastonbury music festival and London concerts by Elton John and the Rolling Stones, as well as school exams.