A Downing Street spokesman said Grayling, who has been tipped to lose his post in a possible new year reshuffle, was in Qatar to meet various ministers and business leaders for two days and would return on Thursday or Friday.
Asked why the trip could not have been arranged for later in the month, so Grayling could respond to the biggest annual rise in rail fares for five years and protests at stations in response, the spokesman referred the question to the Department for Transport.
Speaking later to LBC radio, Grayling said he was in Qatar “trying to win a couple of big contracts” for UK businesses, and had timed the trip to coincide with the parliamentary recess.
He said: “Of course, the increase was announced a month ago, and I’ve done radio interviews about it and answered questions in the House of Commons, so I don’t think I’ve shirked the issue.”
Protests organised by the RMT rail union and attended by some Labour politicians took place at dozens of stations in England on Tuesday morning, the first day of average fare increases of 3.4%, with season tickets increasing by 3.6%.
Andy McDonald, the shadow transport secretary, said Grayling’s absence “smacks of a man running scared”. He said: “Passengers and taxpayers deserve better than a failing transport secretary who refuses to defend his track record.”
The Liberal Democrat leader, Vince Cable, said: “Rail passengers are shivering on platforms, angered by the biggest fare increase in years, while Chris Grayling is off globetrotting.”
He said it was “very difficult to see what useful function” Grayling could perform abroad that trade officials could not.
Mick Cash, general secretary of the RMT, said train passengers would draw their own conclusions from Grayling’s decision to take a “trip to the Qatari sunshine”.
Grayling will meet the Gulf state’s prime minister and the ministers for transport, finance and the interior, as well as the chief executives of the Qatar Investment Authority and Qatar Airways and representatives from UK businesses.
Asked whether Downing Street was happy with Grayling being absent amid the political storm over the fare increases, the spokesman said: “The fare rises we’ve known were coming for a while. The Department for Transport have been responding, and have issued a full statement in response to those fare increases.”
Asked whether Theresa May had confidence in Grayling, he said: “Chris Grayling is working hard and doing a good job as transport secretary.”
The fare increases are pegged to the retail price index (RPI), a measure of inflation that is higher than the consumer price index and that is well above average increases in earnings.
Grayling told LBC that while he would prefer to have fare rises linked to the lower inflation measure of the consumer price index (CPI), this had practical problems.
“The increase is higher than I would wish. I think we need to move to the lower form of inflation,” he said. “There are two big barriers to that. One is that it involves unpicking long-term contracts, and I have started the process of looking at how best we do that. The other is, I’m afraid, the unions and the Labour party.”
The issue with unions, he argued, was that they had as policy that pay rises for staff should be linked to RPI rather than CPI.
The No 10 spokesman said the use of RPI was “consistent with the general approach which is adopted across the rail industry”, and the fees train operators were charged by Network Rail for using tracks had increased by the same amount.
He said: “The government carefully monitors how rail fares and average earnings change, and keeps the way fare levels are calculated under review. We understand people are concerned about increases in the cost of their rail tickets, and families are feeling the squeeze on their finances.”
The Downing Street spokesman dismissed criticism of Grayling from Andrew Adonis, who resigned as head of the government-backed national infrastructure commission on Friday, about claims the operators of the East Coast rail franchise would receive a taxpayer bailout, calling this “completely wrong”.
“We’ve been very clear that no one is getting a bailout,” he said. “Virgin Stagecoach will continue to meet its financial commitments made to the taxpayer on the East Coast rail franchise, as it’s done since 2015.”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010