Train drivers’ strike hits German commuters

Millions of commuters in Germany were on Tuesday left stranded by an early morning nationwide strike by train drivers.

High-speed cross-country trains and local commuter services in Berlin and elsewhere were hit, as 10,000 train drivers took industrial action in support of a demand for wage increases of up to 30 per cent. Freight transport was also affected by the strike.

Some trains were returning to normal by mid-morning after the four-hour stoppage, which started at 5am.

The strike, by the small GDL train drivers trade union followed the start on Monday of separate industrial action by two other, larger, railway trade unions, adding to disruptions for commuters and for Deutsche Bahn, the state-owned rail company.

Deutsche Bahn admitted in a statement that the strikes had caused “massive” disruption to services.

The GDL argues its high claim is justified as many train drivers earn only €1500 after tax, which the union describes as unacceptable. Deutsche Bahn has dismissed the claim as excessive.

The separate strike action by the Transnet and GDBA trade unions, representing rail personnel other than drivers, was also stepped up on Tuesday, with stoppages in several cities in southern Germany.

Negotiations between Deutsche Bahn, Transnet and GDBA broke down on Saturday without results. The two unions have a joint demand of a 7 per cent wage increase for 134,000 Bahn staff, arguing that the company can afford wage increases because it is highly profitable. The company has offered a 2 per cent increase next January, and a further 2 per cent in 2009.

The Bahn, which is trying to cut costs ahead of an initial public offering next year or in 2009, says 9,000 jobs would be lost if it gave in to the various union demands.

In an unusual display of disunity among trade unions, Transnet leaders have also criticised the GDL demand as “outright excessive”.

Amid widespread disruption, travellers arrived at railway stations in Cologne, Frankfurt and elsewhere only to find that all services had been cancelled. In Berlin hundreds of thousands of commuters at suburban stations and in towns and villages around the capital were left without rail connections.

A hotline installed by Deutsche Bahn to deal with the disruption was at times overloaded with calls.

Strikes by railway workers in Germany are rare, and the country is well-known for the high quality and punctuality of its rail services.

Economists and officials at the European Central Bank in Frankfurt are likely to look critically at the wage demands of at least 7 per cent, amid worries that Germany’s economic recovery could fuel wage inflation.

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