A ninth German train drivers' strike in 10 months has hit the national rail network hard. Two-thirds of long distance trains were canceled, roughly a third of regional services were stopped - talks are ongoing.
Germany's national rail operator Deutsche Bahn (DB) said on Wednesday that the latest strike by the German train drivers' union GDL would halt two-thirds of long distance trains across the country. Around 60 percent of regional trains would still be running, depending on the region. DB said the number of trains in the eastern part of Germany has been especially reduced by the strike.
The strike could affect up to 6 million rail passengers, with many canceled trains being replaced by buses.
As rail passengers dealt with the strike, DB and GDL representatives held meetings Wednesday afternoon arbitrated by labor attorney Klaus Bepler to negotiate an end to the impasse.
Passenger trains stopped service at 2 a.m. (0000 UTC) Wednesday morning. Freight service had already screeched to a halt at 3 p.m. (1300 UTC) Tuesday afternoon. The GDL has not announced when the strike will end, only that they would give 48 hours notice to passengers.
GDL Chairman Claus Weselsky said in an interview with German news channel "n-tv," that the discussions were currently "confidential." The two sides are seeking a deal to enter formal arbitration, but Weselsky said his union would only agree to this step if its members "constitutionally guaranteed rights" were safeguarded.
The German government spokesman, Steffen Seibert, said that Chancellor Angela Merkel had already stated many times that strikes were a "vested fundamental right."
The GDL, which represents around 20,000 drivers, is demanding a 5-percent wage increase, a two-hour shorter working week and greater negotiating rights for the union that would extend to representing other train personnel such as conductors and restaurant staff.
Weselsky has said the open-ended strike would probably last longer than the previous six-day walkout earlier this month, which would make it the longest in Deutsche Bahn's 21 years of operation.
Trouble ahead for long holiday weekend
Spokesman Seibert also said that both parties needed to "be aware of their special responsibility" with such an extensive strike affecting a key service like rail travel in light of the upcoming Pentecost holiday weekend.
DB said it was working on an alternative schedule to accommodate passengers during the bank-holiday weekend with around one third of long-distance trains running.
DB has been looking for replacement drivers to keep trains running over the Pentecost weekend.
Alternative transport takes advantage
Private train companies, rental car agencies, ride sharing companies and especially long-distance busses can benefit from extended rail strikes.
Axel Stocker, chief of long-distance bus service Evobus told German broadcaster WDR Wednesday that the train strikes have proven that the long distance busses were "a reliable alternative [to rail travel]." According to WDR, the current strike has driven 500,000 train customers to take the bus.
"We are in tough competition for travelers with busses and rental car companies," said a DB industrial council representative warning about damages to the reputation of rail travel in Germany.
DB supervisory board member Ulrich Homburg said that this ninth strike in 10 months had shaken "confidence in the entire rail system."
About 5.5 million people travel by train every day in Germany and 620,000 tons of freight is transported by rail.
wr/msh (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)