LONDON: Union bosses have slammed Britain’s transport minister for visiting Qatar amid an ongoing row over steep hikes to UK rail fares.
As millions of Britons bemoan the country’s largest rail fare increase in five years, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has been criticized for fleeing the fray with a trip to Doha.
The purpose is to drum up business for Britain as it looks to exit the EU — but unions criticized the timing after protests at 40 UK train stations over ticket-price increases. Fares rose by an average of 3.4 percent, with season tickets increasing by 3.6 percent at the start of the year.
A spokesperson for ASLEF, a trade union for train drivers, told Arab News it was “typical” of Grayling to be absent on the day the train fares went up.
“It’s interesting that he doesn’t want to be around when there’s a lot of justified anger that the privatized train operating companies in this country are profiting yet again at the expense of the passengers that they are meant to serve.”
Carmel Nolan, head of communications at the TSSA, an independent trade union for the transport and travel trade industries, said Grayling was “missing in action” and “doing anything but helping the British rail industry.”
“His job is to be the secretary of state for transport and rail fares have seen the biggest hike in five years,” Nolan said.
“Effectively there’s an extra penalty on workers to go to work and he’s not here addressing a crisis in transport, he’s in Qatar, avoiding journalists, avoiding accountability, no doubt trying to drum up new trading relationships and partnerships because he’s such a hard Brexiteer.”
Bobby Morton, Unite national officer for the rail industry, said: “Chris Grayling’s sudden trip to Qatar smacks of running scared as millions of commuters faced unacceptable rail fare increases for 2018, including his constituents. The transport secretary should have had the guts to have faced the media in the UK, so he could explain what he is going to do to curb such draconian increases in the future.”
The Labour party accused Grayling of trying to escape the outcry over the price hike, which will see passengers paying up to £2,500 ($3,378) more for their annual season tickets than they did in 2010.
“Transport Secretary Chris Grayling has gone into hiding, unable to defend today’s 3.6 percent fares hike and refusing to explain the £2 billion taxpayer bailout of Virgin East Coast. Passengers deserve better than this,” said Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald.
Vince Cable, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, said: “Rail passengers are shivering on platforms angered by the biggest fare increase in years while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.”
Speaking on LBC radio, Grayling said he was in Qatar to “win a couple of big contracts” for UK businesses.
"I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue, but I think it’s really important we get out and try and win business for Britain."
Responding to questions raised about the timing of Grayling’s two-day trip to Qatar, after which he will head to Turkey, the Department for Transport released a statement saying he was on “a pre-planned visit to promote the UK overseas, support British jobs and strengthen the important relationship between the two countries.”
The prime minister’s official spokesperson said: "There are ministers visiting a whole host of countries spreading the message that Britain is a very good place to invest and to do business in. Chris Grayling obviously plays an important part in that.”
Transport unions in the UK criticized the rail price hikes and called for a return to public ownership of Britain's railways, which were privatized in the mid-1990s. Many feel that regular price increases have not been reflected in improved services, with delays and cancelations common across the country’s rail networks.
Research by the Trades Union Congress (TUC) found that Britons spend up to six times more of their salaries on rail fares than commuters in other European countries.
“Another year, another price increase. Many commuters will look with envy to their continental cousins, who enjoy reasonably-priced journeys to work,” said TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady.
Grayling’s absence during the UK’s latest rail fare furore has added to speculation that his job may be on the line in the upcoming Cabinet reshuffle.
Grayling, who served as justice minister from 2012 to 2015, was also behind a controversial decision to restrict prisoners’ access to books, which was subsequently declared unlawful and revoked.