Passengers hit as German train drivers extend strike

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BERLIN, Nov 15 (Reuters) Millions of German passengers struggled with travel chaos today as train drivers extended a 62-hour freight strike to passenger services in their long-running wage dispute with rail operator Deutsche Bahn.

The walkouts by the GDL drivers' union, which has raised fears about the impact on Europe's biggest economy, is the worst in Deutsche Bahn's history.

Freight stoppages started yesterday and brought goods trains in east Germany to a standstill while the passenger train walkout began at 0630 hrs IST.

Commuters complained about long traffic jams as roads in cities across the country clogged up. Many were frustrated with the delays but there is still a high degree of support for GDL.

''These strikes are a complete nightmare but I can understand why the drivers are doing it -- they want more money,'' said Michel Frieske, 19-year-old chef, trying to get to work at Berlin's Ostbahnof. ''Deutsche Bahn needs to give ground.'' East Germany was hit hardest with only 10 per cent of regional trains running there but two-thirds of high-speed long haul trains were running nationwide, Deutsche Bahn said.

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.

The stoppages were already hurting some firms, especially those who rely on just-in-time deliveries. Carmaker Audi cancelled a shift at one plant due to parts shortages.

GETTING NASTY There is no end in sight to the dispute and the tone is sharpening. GDL accused Deutsche Bahn of violating Germany.

''What I cannot understand is that the country can be raped -- as it has been for months now -- just because Deutsche Bahn management simply refuses to take up negotiations,'' GDL leader Manfred Schell told German public television ARD.

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 even raised the prospect of open-ended strikes if it sees no new offer.

But Deutsche Bahn says it will not make another offer.

''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: ''Stop this madness, Herr Schell.'' The GDL, which says its workers are underpaid compared with drivers in other European countries, wants its own wage deal for its 34,000 drivers, separate from one agreed by other railway workers in July which gave them a 4.5 per cent pay rise. It was initially seeking a 31 per cent wage increase.

Both strikes will end at (0630 hrs IST) on Saturday.

REUTERS PD BST1603

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