The UK transport secretary, Mark Harper, will meet the union leader Mick Lynch for the first time for urgent talks to try to call off rail strikes over the festive period.
The RMT general secretary defended the industrial action after critical newspaper reports painted him as “the Grinch who stole Christmas”.
“I’m not the Grinch. I’m a trade union official, and I’m determined to get a deal,” Lynch said.
His assistant general secretary, John Leach, said he hoped Harper “puts his shoulder behind the wheel and gets a deal moving”, but warned that if a settlement isn’t reached on Thursday then passengers will face “more and more disruption”.
Meanwhile, the work and pensions secretary, Mel Stride, told Sky News on Wednesday that legislation could be pushed forward “in due course” to ensure a minimum service for passengers. He condemned striking workers for putting festive family reunions at risk.
More than 40,000 members of the RMT working for Network Rail and 14 train operating companies will strike on 13-14 and 16-17 December, causing disruption over six consecutive days in the run-up to Christmas. A further two strikes are planned for 3-4 and 6-7 January.
The RMT also announced an overtime ban that would cover the Christmas period from 18 December until 2 January, when services will already be affected in some areas by engineering works.
Train drivers in the Aslef union will also halt a number of services on Saturday.
“What we need is more talking from the unions with the employers and [fewer] announcements of strikes,” Stride said. “The consequence of this for families up and down the country, some of them quite serious incidentally, people trying to get to medical appointments for example, as well as the family reunions you have mentioned.
“It could be pretty profound. If you look at the timing of these strikes, they are designed to create maximum disruption across the Christmas period.”
Defending the action, Lynch said: “This latest round of strikes will show how important our members are to the running of this country and will send a clear message that we want a good deal on job security, pay and conditions for our people. This whole process has become a farce that only the new secretary of state can resolve.
“There is no good time to have a strike. We have left the Christmas period strike-free deliberately. We cannot leave this action to go cold. We have not been on strike for two months, we moved other dates to facilitate important public and national events.
“If we just leave it they will impose the changes. Network Rail have already issued a statutory redundancy notice for 3,000 jobs and they will impose that if we do not resist what they are doing and come to a compromise.”
Labour stressed the need for a deal, but backed workers’ right to campaign for a fair pay offer. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We recognise people have got a right to do everything they can to campaign for a fair pay deal, and they will continue to do so.
“And people have a right to withdraw their labour and to strike as part of that and we will always support people’s right to be able to do that, but ultimately we need a deal in place, and that is what we have been calling for.”
Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s chief negotiator, said: “No one can deny the precarious financial hole in which the railway finds itself. Striking makes that hole bigger and the task of finding a resolution ever more difficult.
“Only through reform, that will not result in anyone losing their job, can savings be made that can then be converted into an improved offer. While progress has been made over these last two weeks, we still have yet to find that breakthrough.
“We will not give up and hope that the RMT will return to the table with a more realistic appreciation of the situation.”