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Germany's train services halted in longest strike yet

January 24, 2024

Train drivers in Germany have begun their longest in a series of strikes, affecting passenger and freight services on Deutsche Bahn for six days. Experts have warned the rail strike will have a severe economic impact.

A passenger at a railway station in Germany
This the fourth strike by train drivers in Germany since NovemberImage: Julian Stratenschulte/dpa/picture alliance

Train drivers in Germany on Wednesday began their longest strike yet in an ongoing labor dispute with Deutsche Bahn (DB) that is set to impact thousands of passengers and could dent the economy with a loss of up to €1 billion ($1.1 billion).

On Monday, the German Train Drivers' Union (GDL) had called for a six-day strike. The planned industrial action will run from 2:00 a.m. local time (0100 GMT) Wednesday until 6 p.m. on Monday for passenger traffic. The strike for freight trains began a day earlier.

German train strike begins, DB implements provisional timetable

Deutsche Bahn confirmed on Wednesday morning that its provisional emergency timetable was in operation, with only one in five long-distance trains running. 

It has advised passengers to double-check in advance whether their connection is still running, to book seat reservations to guarantee a place but to consider rebooking their journey if it's not absolutely necessary. During the strike, tickets for specific trains can be used on other services.

6-day train strike paralyzes rail transport in Germany

The effect of the strike on local services varies from region to region, with many regional, urban and suburban services operated at least partially by private companies such as National Express or Eurobahn.

In the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, for instance, just over half (42) of regional services were running as normal while 41 services were affected by strike action. However, even unaffected services could be impacted by strike action affecting DB infrastructure.

In Hamburg, traffic coordinators reported an increase in motorway traffic jams as morning commuters took the Autobahn. The evening commute home could also be additionally affected by a planned farmers' protest, with around 100 tractors expected to parade into the city center ahead of a demonstration at 7 p.m. local time.

Despite fears of a knock-on effect on other areas of the economy, Hamburg harbor and logistics operators reported no significant restrictions at container terminals as a result of the freight train strike.

Traffic on the motorway in Munich
With railway workers on strike, many travelers have reverted to their cars, leading to congestion - such as here in Munich.Image: Matthias Balk/dpa/picture alliance

Renewed criticism from politicians

Nevertheless, the pressure on the GDL is growing, with politicians from the conservative opposition CDU/CSU calling for stricter laws to make future strikes on this scale more difficult.

"The most important thing when it comes to critical infrastructure is that an arbitration process must first be completed before going on stike," CDU lawmaker Gitta Connemann told Deutschlandfunk radio, rather than the other way around.

She received backing from Martin Huber, general secretary of the CDU's Bavarian sister party, the CSU, who demanded "an appropriate deadline for strikes."

The unprecedented six-day strike has also drawn criticism from other parts of the railway industry, with the "Pro Rail Alliance" distancing itself from the industrial action and saying it could put-off many passengers from traveling by rail in future. Alliance chief executive Dirk Flege called for "both rhetoric and actions" to be toned down.

Long-running dispute

This is the fourth GDL rail strike since November. It marks an escalation of the dispute between GDL and Deutsche Bahn over salaries and work hours.

Germany's rail workers, farmers block transport

It comes just days after the last walkout staged by rail employees on January 10 and 12.

The last face-to-face negotiations between the GDL and DB took place at the end of November 2023. The GDL said on Monday that it had rejected a latest improved offer including pay increases and a one-off payment to compensate for inflation. 

Besides that, the GDL wants to cut weekly working hours for shift workers from 38 to 35 hours without a salary reduction. Deutsche Bahn has offered to reduce the load to 37 hours starting in 2026, but says the union's demands are unfeasible because it would exacerbate existing staff shortages.

'Strike against German economy'

Tanja Gönner, managing director of the Federation of German Industries (BDI), said, "With a six-day strike, it is not unrealistic to expect losses totaling up to €1 billion." 

The prolonged industrial action "is a strike against the German economy," Deutsche Bahn spokeswoman Anja Broeker said. She pointed out that "cargo traffic handled by the service include supplies for power plants, refineries."

She, however, also said, "DB Cargo will do everything to secure the supply chain, but it's clear that there will be some impact."

Each strike is expected to cost "a low two-digit million figure," according to Deutsche Bahn's calculations, but experts estimate a more severe loss to the economy.

Describing the strike as "destructive," Transport Minister Volker Wissing said it would mount further pressure on supply chains that are already overstrained due to attacks on Red Sea shipping routes by Houthis in Yemen.

"I find that it is unreasonable vis-a-vis train travelers that the trains are standing there blocked while one's not at the same time sitting at the negotiating table," Wissing said.

GDL boss Claus Weselsky has defended the unprecedented measures as "proportionate, legal and permitted," adding: "We have to strike harder and for longer because the [DB] management is immune to advice."

mfi, mf/msh (AFP, dpa)

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