22/02/2016 21:23 GMT | Updated 22/02/2017 05:12 GMT

Rail Official Apologises Over 'Punch-Ups With Train Drivers' Comment

A Government rail official has apologised after reportedly saying drivers who resist changes to their working hours can "get the hell out of my industry".

Peter Wilkinson, director of Rail Passenger Services at the Department for Transport (DfT), faced calls for his resignation after comments at a public meeting in Croydon, south London.

He sparked fury from trade unions after reportedly saying there would be be "punch-ups" with train drivers over plans to change working hours.

In a statement on Monday night he said: "I apologise for any offence caused by my comments. I care passionately about the rail industry and I am committed to helping Government deliver a better rail service for passengers. To do this we need to work with the whole of the rail industry."

The Croydon Advertiser reported Mr Wilkinson told people at a meeting organised by Conservative MP Gavin Barwell: "Over the next three years we're going to be having punch-ups and we will see industrial action and I want your support."

The paper said he told the crowd that train drivers were paid high salaries of £60,000 a year or more to work three days a week, with no obligation to work on Sundays, and had the same rest stops as they did when trains were run on coal.

He is said to have added: "I'm furious about it and it has got to change - we have got to break them. They have all borrowed money to buy cars and got credit cards. They can't afford to spend too long on strike and I will push them into that place.

"They will have to decide if they want to give a good service or get the hell out of my industry."

Mick Whelan, general secretary of Aslef, the train drivers' union, said: "In an industry that is dependent on the goodwill of train drivers, particularly the flexibility required for future electrification, and new trains, it is quite obvious that this man does not know what he is talking about."

Mr Whelan has written to Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin asking if he will confirm that these "lies" were the views of the Government, adding: "If not, we will expect him to remove Mr Wilkinson from his post immediately."

Rail, Maritime and Transport union leader Mick Cash said Mr Wilkinson's comments were "disgraceful and inflammatory", adding: "Rail staff will be disgusted that a senior civil servant, paid from the public purse, has rocked up at a meeting organised by a Tory MP to launch a threatening and abusive assault on trade union members fighting to stop attacks on staffing levels, services and passenger safety.

"The people responsible for the chaos on Southern Rail services are not the hard-working rail workers, it's the greedy private companies with their profiteering and cuts-led agenda who are now planning to butcher the ticket offices and station facilities and sack the guards from their trains.

"RMT will take no lectures from the likes of Mr Wilkinson and the union will be stepping up the fight for a reversal of the cuts, decent staffing levels and a return to public ownership."

Transport Salaried Staffs Association leader Manuel Cortes said: "The person who should be getting the hell out of the rail industry is Peter Wilkinson.

"In trying to pick a deliberate fight with rail workers he shows himself to be completely unfit to run the rail industry in the interests of its passengers and staff."

A Department for Transport spokesman said: "It is right that Peter Wilkinson has apologised for his comments. He has a fine record of delivering a better railway for passengers, and this is what he will continue to do."

Aslef leader Mick Whelan said:  "The bland unacceptable non-apology from Mr Wilkinson does nothing to restore faith or trust in the DfT for those in the front line and who deliver the railway every day.

"We shall look forward to the promised £60k salary and short working week that he stipulated in every future franchise as a base line and as for the lies about breaks, we are happy to insist on those, too.

"Maybe the public will now understand how 20 years of ineptitude gets placed on the staff, not those who create and perpetuate a flawed model.

"We await the minister's response to Mr Wilkinson and his actions with great interest."