German rail drivers escalate severe strike

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BERLIN, Nov 15 (Reuters) German train drivers escalated a 62-hour strike today, adding passenger service disruptions to a freight stoppage in a long-running dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

The strike, which has raised fears about the impact on Europe's biggest economy, is the worst in Deutsche Bahn's history. The freight stoppages started at 1630 IST yesterday and brought goods trains in east Germany to a standstill.

The passenger train strike began at 0630 IST. Both strikes will end at 0630 IST on Saturday.

Roads were clogged today with heavy traffic in Berlin and many cities as commuters turned to alternative transport.

But Deutsche Bahn said many long-haul trains were running. German railways transport some five million passengers each day.

Economists say the strike on freight routes costs the economy 50 million euros (73.3 million dollars) a day and could rise to 500 million euros if the strikes last more than a week.

Deutsche Bahn said it drafted in 1,000 workers to help provide replacement services and it wanted to keep many international and long-distance passenger trains running.

The company says it expects up to 50 per cent of regional trains will run. Around 20 per cent of urban trains will run in Berlin and 40 per cent in Hamburg, Deutsche Bahn said.

''If we were to cave in now, the damage to the economy would ultimately be far greater,'' Deutsche Bahn executive Karl-Friedrich Rausch told German television.

''They're trying to force us to an unconditional surrender.

That's not going to happen.'' The railways tried to raise the pressure on the union with full page adverts today addressed at GDL leader Manfred Schell: ''Stop this madness, Herr Schell.'' The GDL, which says its workers are underpaid compared to drivers in other European countries, is demanding that Deutsche Bahn makes a new wage offer.

The smallest of three rail workers' unions, the GDL has staged a series of strikes over the last few months, mostly on local and regional services.

It has raised the prospect of open-ended strikes if it sees no new offer. Deutsche Bahn says it is not prepared to make another wage offer.

The union wants its own wage deal for its 34,000 drivers, separate from one agreed by the railway's other 195,000 workers in July which gave them a 4.5 per cent pay rise.

The GDL has said it could negotiate its initial demand for a 31 per cent wage increase if it gets its own contract. Deutsche Bahn wants to keep its employees under a sector-wide agreement.

Economists say that if GDL gets its own contract, it could fragment Germany's unions and push up labour costs by encouraging other workers to push for separate wage deals.

REUTERS JT BD1310

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