Rail strikes hit Germany for second time in a week

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BERLIN, Oct 18 (Reuters) German commuters struggled with major disruptions for the second time in a week today as train drivers struck again to back pay demands.

The drivers' union GDL began walkouts on regional services across Germany at 2 am (0530 hrs IST), intensifying a dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn that has dragged on for months. The strike is due to end at 11 am (1430 hrs IST).

As the morning rush hour got under way, only about half the regional and urban ''S-Bahn'' commuter trains were in service across the country, Deutsche Bahn passenger service chief Karl-Friedrich Rausch told reporters in Frankfurt.

GDL issued a joint statement with its French counterpart FGAAC justifying both the GDL's wage demands and the FGAAC's refusal to allow its pension privileges to be scrapped. Transport workers in France were also striking today.

Deutsche Bahn made the drivers a fifth pay offer on Monday, including a one-off payment of 2,000 euros (2,837 dollar) and a rise in monthly wages of up to 10 percent, but the GDL rejected this.

Margret Suckale, Deutsche Bahn's head of personnel, said on Wednesday public support for GDL's position was running out.

''For weeks it has brushed each new offer off the table,'' she said. ''Nobody can sympathise with this any more.'' Katrin Naht, a 40-year-old engineer in Berlin, had little sympathy for GDL's demands which she said were excessive.

''I don't understand,'' she told Reuters at a commuter station in Berlin. ''I have to go to work too. The demand for 30 per cent (pay rise) is disproportionately high. Many earn less.'' Commuter trains were still running in the capital of 3.4 million, though with delays.

GDL says its members are poorly paid in comparison with their counterparts elsewhere in Europe. It has demanded a pay rise of up to 31 per cent and GDL deputy head Claus Weselsky yesterday described Deutsche Bahn's latest offer as ''a mockery.'' The 34,000-member GDL is also seeking a separate wage contract to set train drivers apart from other rail staff, while Deutsche Bahn wants to keep all its workers under a single sector-wide agreement.

Economists say that if GDL got its own contract, it could fragment Germany's unions and push up labour costs by encouraging other sections of the workforce to press for separate wage deals.

The union has organised a string of walkouts in recent months, and said it could stage further strikes tomorrow and from Monday to Wednesday next week.

German rail strikes are rare but millions of passengers have been stranded by stoppages over the last three months -- the most recent on Friday -- costing the economy millions of euros.

Deutsche Bahn, which the government wants to partly privatise by 2009, is Europe's largest rail and transport firm. It serves more than 5 million passengers daily on 28,000 trains.

Reuters AE DB1248

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