Rail unions have rejected an eight per cent pay offer that would have averted debilitating Christmas train strikes.
The walkouts later this month threaten to wreck the holiday travel plans of millions of people.
The rejection of the offer from rail bosses means national strikes are set to go ahead on Dec 13 and 14, and again on Dec 16 and 17.
It comes amid a spate of industrial action during advent, with nurses set to walk out for two days and Royal Mail workers planning strikes in the busiest period for Christmas deliveries.
Ambulance workers and civil servants, including Border Force officials, have also backed strike action but are yet to confirm dates.
Weather forecasters at the Met Office are also reportedly preparing to join the mass public sector walkouts.
On Sunday, the rail unions were accused of "holding the country to ransom" by rejecting the offer, which is bigger than the pay deal offered to nurses and other public sector workers.
As well as the salary boost over two years, it guaranteed no compulsory redundancies until April 2024.
Mark Harper, the Transport Secretary, described the situation as “incredibly disappointing, and unfair to the public”.
He said: “The RMT [Rail, Maritime and Transport union] has been offered an improved new deal by the train operating companies and has rejected it outright.
“The situation is incredibly disappointing, and unfair to the public, passengers and the rail workforce who want a deal.
“Our railways need to modernise. There’s no place for outdated working practices that rely on voluntary overtime to run a reliable seven-day service.
“Passengers should also receive the service they’ve paid for. This deal will help get trains running on time.
“The Government continues to play its part in trying to facilitate a resolution to this dispute, while rightly letting the employers do the negotiating. Now it’s for the unions to play their part too by putting the offer from the train operating companies to their members and call off industrial action that would damage the rail industry, rail workers and the wider economy.”
Brendan Clarke-Smith, the Tory MP, said: “People should be able to go about their business and look forward to the Christmas period with their loved ones.
“It’s not right that they should have their festive plans ruined by the RMT trying to hold the country to ransom. They have turned the public against them with their behaviour.”
Paul Maynard, Tory MP for Blackpool North and Cleveleys and a former rail minister, said: "This is a Christmas catastrophe for rail passengers. Every time the RMT turns its back on the need to modernise the railway, it hammers another nail in the network's coffin. Passengers will simply not return the longer the RMT strikes."
A rail industry source said: "What's on offer in an eight per cent pay rise with a lump sum this year - most people facing the same cost of living pressures would take that. Together there is time to save Christmas, the RMT leadership need to cancel the strikes and to put this to their members.
"The alternative is misery in the run-up to what should be the first proper festive season since Covid."
RMT waits until country distracted by World Cup
The RMT waited until the country was distracted by the England World Cup knock-out game to announce it was rejecting the first formal pay offer made by the Rail Delivery Group (RDG) in a dispute that began six months ago.
Mick Lynch, the union's general secretary, said: "We have rejected this offer as it does not meet any of our criteria for securing a settlement on long-term job security, a decent pay rise and protecting working conditions.”
The RMT did not put the deal to its members.
He has demanded a meeting with the RDG on Monday.
Thousands of RMT members across 14 train operators and Network Rail are due to stage two 48-hour strikes later this month - on Dec 13 and 14 and again on Dec 16 and 17.
Coupled with an overtime ban over Christmas, the strikes would result in a month’s worth of disruption, claimed the RDG.
Rail unions have refused to say what level of pay offer they would accept but had previously been seeking a rise in line with inflation, currently at 11 per cent.
Nurses will go on strike on Dec 15 and 20, demanding a 19 per cent pay rise over the course of the next year. The current offer, set by the independent Pay Review Body, is equivalent to about 4.5 per cent.
It comes after the Government announced that 2,000 military personnel and volunteers are undergoing training to fill in for strike-hit public services.
The emergency staff will stand in to support a range of services, including Border Force at airports and ports, in the event of strike action.
Soldiers and other Armed Forces personnel could also be deployed to roles including ambulance driving if a planned NHS strike goes ahead.
They could also serve as firefighters if members of the Fire Brigades Union back industrial action. More than 33,000 firefighters and control room staff start voting on Monday on whether to strike over pay.
Meteorologists and supercomputer operators at the Met Office are also readying for strike action, according to The Times.
Prospect, a union representing 30,000 public sector workers including Met Office staff, is preparing to announce "extraordinary" support for strike action.
Broadcasters, the armed forces, emergency services and government agencies all rely upon Met Office forecasts.
On Sunday Nadhim Zahawi, the Tory party chairman, urged nurses and other public sector workers to accept below-inflation pay rises to help “send a clear message” to Vladimir Putin, the Russian president.
“We have to come together, this is not a time to be divided,” he told Sky’s Sophy Ridge.
“I hope to send a very clear message to Mr Putin that he cannot use energy as a weapon in this way.
“And we will remain united, which is why we’ve accepted the pay review bodies on the NHS, on schools and on others.”
Inflation matching pay rises are 'unsustainable', says Conservative Party Chairman @NadhimZahawi, despite soaring cost of living.#Ridge: https://t.co/ZoMhCmTrtv
📺 Sky 501, Virgin 602, Freeview 233 and YouTube pic.twitter.com/gBVLnCWjXl
— Sophy Ridge on Sunday & The Take (@RidgeOnSunday) December 4, 2022
His comments were met with a furious reaction from nursing unions.
Pat Cullen, general secretary of the Royal College of Nursing, said: "Using Russia's war in Ukraine as a justification for a real-terms pay cut for nurses in the UK is a new low for this government."
Sharon Graham, of Unite, said:
— Sharon Graham (@UniteSharon) December 4, 2022
At the weekend Steve Barclay, the Health Secretary, wrote to the RCN and the GMB unions to reiterate that his door is open for talks.
But he made it clear that he is not negotiating on pay - just terms and conditions - because the Government has accepted the recommendations of the independent Pay Review Body.
Efforts to strike a deal on train strikes have been complicated by the fractured nature of the railways in the UK.
The RDG represents 14 train operators hit by walkouts. However, negotiations have also been taking place between the RMT and Network Rail - the publicly funded body that oversees the railway infrastructure, including track maintenance and signalling.
Network Rail has previously seen its offers of eight per cent pay rises turned down by the RMT.
However, the owner of rail infrastructure such as stations and tracks is understood to have tabled an improved pay deal of nine per cent, plus no compulsory redundancies until Jan 2025.
The RMT's national executive is due to consider Network Rail's offer on Monday.
Under the terms of the RDG offer, rail bosses are seeking reforms of working practices that include formalising Sunday working, to make sure companies can operate more trains at weekends.
The train operators also wish to use more part-time contracts and more flexible working shift patterns.
The RDG is further hoping to modernise the process of buying tickets, replacing the traditional ticket offices - something unions have argued is a threat to jobs.
On Sunday the Transport Salaried Staffs' Association (TSSA), which represents ticket officer workers and other staff, said it was mulling over its own offer by Network Rail and RDG.
The TSSA had called for strike action on Dec 17 after four weeks of failed negotiations.
A TSSA spokesman said: "We are glad that the Government has finally given authority to the employers to make offers in an attempt to resolve our dispute.
“We are considering the detail of these offers very carefully and will be consulting our reps tomorrow.”