German train driver strike hits commuter services

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BERLIN, Oct 12 (Reuters) German train drivers began a full-day strike today, severely disrupting transport for millions of passengers and causing delays for commuters.

The GDL union, representing some 34,000 drivers, began walkouts on regional services at 2 am (midnight GMT), escalating a heated wage dispute with national rail operator Deutsche Bahn that has dragged on for months.

Deutsche Bahn said around half of regional services were cancelled, and that many travellers appeared to be using alternative means of transport. The rail operator described long-distance rail services as ''stable''.

The GDL said yesterday it was resorting to strikes because Deutsche Bahn had not improved its pay offer. Deutsche Bahn said the short notice gave it no time to come up with alternative scheduling plans.

Deutsche Bahn board member Karl-Friedrich Rausch said the union's move was ''incredible'' and that the GDL was solely to blame for ''the foreseeable chaos'' in short-haul travel.

The union says its train drivers are underpaid compared with counterparts elsewhere in Europe.

It has rejected agreements reached between Deutsche Bahn and two other larger rail unions for pay increases of 4.5 per cent and wants a separate deal with raises of up to 31 per cent.

''We would withdraw the 31 percent demand if Deutsche Bahn would discuss a separate agreement,'' GDL said yesterday.

Rail strikes are relatively rare in Germany but passengers faced some disruption due to industrial action over the summer and GDL drivers held a three-hour strike last Friday.

However, a survey for Stern magazine showed on Wednesday that 55 per cent of Germans sympathise with the strikers.

GDL boss Manfred Schell met Deutsche Bahn chief executive Hartmut Mehdorn in Berlin yesterday to try to resolve the conflict, but no deal was reached.

A Deutsche Bahn spokesman said after the meeting the rail operator would submit a new pay offer by Monday.

Deutsche Bahn, which the government wants to partially privatise by 2009, is Europe's largest rail and transport firm.

It serves more than 5 million passengers daily on some 28,000 trains.

REUTERS NY VC1306

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