German train drivers offer talks with rail operator

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BERLIN, Nov 19 (Reuters) Germany's GDL train drivers' union, which staged the country's biggest rail strike last week, is ready to hold talks with rail operator Deutsche Bahn tomorrow to try to resolve their pay dispute, its leader said.

Although the two sides are still far apart in their 9-month long industrial conflict, it is the first sign in weeks that they could meet for talks.

The union, which insists its workers are underpaid compared to their counterparts in Europe, has threatened to start open-ended strikes if Deutsche Bahn fails to come up with a new pay offer by the end of today.

Deutsche Bahn has said it will not make an improved offer, but German newspapers have reported that the company is working on a new proposal.

''Tomorrow would be possible (for talks) for the whole GDL board,'' GDL head Manfred Schell said in an Internet chat after appearing on a talk show with a Deutsche Bahn board member late yesterday.

Schell turned down the option of talks today.

He also reiterated that the union could accept a pay rise of around 10-15 per cent. GDL wants its own wage contract, separate from other rail workers, and had been demanding a pay rise of up to 31 per cent.

GDL has refused to accept a 4.5 per cent pay rise for its roughly 34,000 members which two other larger rail worker unions accepted.

Economists and politicians have warned about the damage an indefinite strike could have on Europe's biggest economy. Both freight and passenger services were hit by 62-hours of walkouts last week.

The total cost of the stoppages so far was at least 109.6 million dollar, said Germany's DIW economic think tank, according to newspaper reports at the weekend.

Politicians have urged both sides to return to the negotiating table but have not got actively involved in trying to bring the sides together.

''There is an urgent need for talks this week,'' Transport Minister Wolfgang Tiefensee told German radio today. ''And I hope these will lead to concrete negotiations.'' REUTERS SKB SSC1400

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