THE UK transport secretary has warned of new action laws to curb the impact of strikes - as railway services across Scotland the rest of the UK were crippled by industrial action by Network Rail staff.

Grant Shapps insisted he was powerless to stop this week's rail strikes as he accused union bosses of taking the country "back to the bad old days" of widespread industrial action.

And he sparked a row as he said accused the leader of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT), Mick Lynch of wanting to transform himself into one of the “1970s union barons”.

He also warned that ministers would bring forward new laws in an attempt to combat any further industrial action impact.

The change would make it easier to fill gaps in the workforce during future strikes by allowing workers who are qualified in other areas to perform alternative roles.

The law change will reportedly allow flexible workers, including agency staff, to cover for those on strike.

Mr Shapps said: “Nothing that we can do this week would change the reality for the strikes this week. Law changes take time."

Members of the RMT are to strike on today, on Thursday and Saturday in an ongoing UK-wide dispute with Network Rail - which owns the UK's rail tracks, stations and signals – over plans to axe hundreds of critical maintenance jobs, pay and working conditions.

Scots stations were left deserted as a result of the first day of the strike, leaving some buses packed and commuter traffic queues on the M8.

Only five routes were remaining in service today, the first day of a three-day strike. All are in the central belt of Scotland and the last train will depart well before 6.30pm.

It's the biggest outbreak of industrial action in the industry in a generation.

It comes as an emergency timetable which has cut services by up to half due to staff shortages remains in place across the Scottish network in a separate ScotRail dispute over pay with the train drivers union Aslef. A pay offer is due to be put to drivers.

HeraldScotland: Prime Minister Boris Johnson

Boris Johnson has accused trade unions of “harming the very people they claim to be helping”.

Mr Shapps said new laws to allow flexible workers, including agency staff, to cover for those on strike could be introduced within months.

He said: “We are going to change the law to ensure there can be much more flexibility, the law which is sometimes referred to as agency is actually more about transferability.

“That sort of modernisation can be achieved, if we can’t get it by agreement with the unions, by changing the law. And we will change the law in rapid order in the next month or two to ensure that transferable skills are allowed.”

He warned commuters they must be ready to "stay the course" and urged rail bosses and unions to agree on a package to safeguard the future of the industry.

The Prime Minister told Cabinet that, without fundamental changes to the way the system operates, rail firms risk going bust and passengers face ever-higher prices that could ultimately lead to them abandoning train travel.

He said the strike action was making it "more difficult for people to get to work, risking people's appointments, making it more difficult for kids to sit exams - all sorts of unnecessary aggravations".

Mr Johnson set out why he believed the strikes are "so wrong and so unnecessary", pointing to the levels of support offered to the industry during the pandemic and the "colossal" investment in rail infrastructure.

"We believe in our railways, we believe in our railway infrastructure as a vital part of levelling up across the country," he said.

“We need the union barons to sit down with Network Rail and the train companies and get on with it.

“We need, I’m afraid, everybody, and I say this to the country as a whole, we need to get ready to stay the course.

Mr Lynch accused Grant Shapps of “spouting nonsense” amid a row over Government plans to reduce the impact of future strikes.

Mr Lynch said: “Well, I don’t know how bringing in untrained, non-safety critical, inexperienced workers into a dangerous environment like the railway with high-speed trains, there are high voltage distribution systems, there are rules and regulations that have the power of statute, how that will help anyone, whether they are a passenger or a worker or manager or whatever.

“I don’t see how the use, the deployment, of students or people who have got no work experience that are working for an agency will help anyone to resolve this situation so as usual he’s just spouting nonsense given to him from some policy unit which doesn’t help to resolve the situations which are in front of us.”

Mr Lynch called for trade unions to "coordinate" future strike action "so that it has the most effect possible".

He was asked if he would support other unions in other sectors going on strike and said: “My advice to unions is to campaign on the issues and ultimately if the Government and the employers do not change their direction I believe more ballots for strike action are inevitable and more action is inevitable.

“What I would say to trade union leaders and trade union activists is we need to coordinate and synchronise our campaigning so that we can rebalance the inequalities in our society.”

Asked what he meant by "synchronise", Mr Lynch said: “Well we need to coordinate the action. So we need mass rallies, we need people on the streets, we need protests in every town and city in Britain and if we have to have industrial action we should coordinate that industrial action so that it has the most effect possible.”

Meanwhile, Network Rail has asked the RMT attend formal consultation talks next month on introducing “modern working practices”.

A letter was handed to Mick Lynch, general secretary of the Rail, Maritime and Transport union (RMT), at the end of talks on Monday evening.

Meetings were held throughout the day but failed to avert three days of strikes.