German train drivers launch new strike over pay

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BERLIN, Oct 25 (Reuters) German train drivers locked in a long-running pay dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn began a 30-hour strike today, extending a period of serious disruption to rail services across the country.

A series of one-day stoppages have already delayed millions of commuters and other travellers this month and prompted Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee to warn of a potentially disastrous impact on Europe's biggest economy.

The GDL union, representing some 34,000 drivers, began walkouts at 2 am (0530 IST), escalating a heated pay dispute with Deutsche Bahn that has dragged on for months. The action is due to end at 8 am tomorrow.

The latest stoppages affect only local and regional services, as in earlier cases. Walkouts on long-distance and goods services are still subject to a court ban.

Deutsche Bahn said early today around 50 per cent of local and regional train services were running in western Germany, while eastern Germany had been hit harder.

Local trains were running every 10 minutes in central Berlin and every 20 minutes in Hamburg, it said.

''The situation for us and our customers has worsened considerably compared to the previous strike,'' Deutsche Bahn board member Karl-Friedrich Rausch told n-tv television.

The GDL says its train drivers are underpaid compared with counterparts elsewhere in Europe and is seeking pay rises of up to 31 percent and an independent collective labour agreement.

It has rejected deals struck between Deutsche Bahn and two other, larger rail unions for pay increases of 4.5 per cent. It has also refused an offer for a 10 per cent wage hike and a one-off payment of 2,000 euros (2,845 dollars).

Rausch urged GDL officials to restart talks as soon as possible. ''The offer has already been there for a while. We are ready,'' he told n-tv.

Rail strikes are rare in Germany and a survey by the Forsa institute for Stern magazine published on Wednesday suggested Germans are losing patience with the train drivers.

From 1,001 Germans polled, 45 per cent said they thought the drivers were right to strike, down from 55 per cent at the beginning of October.

''Although I understand the need for higher wages in principle, the 30 per cent they are asking for is too high and they should lower their demand,'' Wolfgang Reich, a lawyer on his way to work, said at Berlin's Friedrichstrasse station.

''Now, as it stands, the passengers become the victims between the two conflicting parties,'' he said.

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

REUTERS SKB HS1250

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