German train drivers' union GDL followed through on its threat to hold mass strikes on Thursday, halting passenger services and affecting hundreds of thousands of travelers and commuters.
At 2 a.m. on Thursday morning, German train drivers' union GDL extended a new strike round that had begun with freight trains on Wednesday and went on to include passenger services across the country. At least one-third of all service on long distance trains in the country has been suspended.
But the strike appears to be having the greatest impact in the states of the former East Germany, where the GDL union has a strong presence. National railway Deutsche Bahn is reporting that only 10 percent of regional commuter trains are in operation in eastern German states.
Major strikes on freight trains commenced on Wednesday, with more than 40 percent of train services cancelled. By Thursday, the first major supply problems were reported. Automobile manufacturer Audi had to partially suspend production in Brussels because the company was unable to deliver parts from Germany to the Belgian plant.
The strikes have also had a heavy impact on Germany's ports. In Hamburg, home to Europe's second-largest port, more than 200 freight trains a day transport cargo from ships to their destinations in Germany and elsewhere in Europe. But on Thursday, more than half of those trains were out of service.
A greater number of passenger trains were still in operation in Germany's western states, where close to 50 percent of regional trains were running. Local S-Bahn commuter trains in major cities, though, were hard hit. In Hamburg, only 40 percent of the S-Bahn commuter trains were running. And in Frankfurt and Stuttgart, only about one-third of the commuter trains were in operation. In the state of North Rhine-Westphalia, home to the populous Ruhr region, Cologne and Düsseldorf, S-Bahn trains were only running about once an hour.
Since the strike began, GDL train drivers have ceased work on close to 1,300 shifts. Deutsche Bahn has tried to limit the impact of the strike by using an alternative schedule and train drivers who do not belong to GDL. A Deutsche Bahn spokesman said the company had been able to keep much of its high-speed ICE network operating with some delays, but that service on normal intercity routes had been significantly diminished.
With blanket media coverage of the pending strikes in recent days, passengers also seemed well prepared. "It's been relatively quiet at train stations," a Deutsche Bahn spokesman said. Commuters across the country turned to their cars in droves, leading to massive traffic jams outside major connurbations surrounding Hamburg, Cologne, Munich and the Ruhr valley. Car rental agencies are reporting that demand has risen in recent days.
Germany's budget airline carriers also reported a surge in bookings as a result of the rail strikes. "Since yesterday, we've had a lot more bookings than usual, with increases of 15 to 30 percent on some routes," Air Berlin spokeswoman Claudia Loeffler told the Berliner Zeitung newspaper.
The strike is expected to last 62 hours before ending at 2 a.m. on Saturday. To soften the strike's effects, Deutsche Bahn is operating on a limited train schedule and has deployed about 500 buses to replace trains on some routes.
A GDL spokesman told the Berlin public radio station Inforadio that the strike could last until Christmas. Hans-Joachim Kernschen, the union's district leader in the capital city, threatened that if its demands weren't met, the union could go on what he described as an "unlimited" strike. "We can hold out for a long time," he warned.
GDL chief Manfred Schell told German public television broadcaster ARD on Thursday that the union would decide next week whether to expand the strike. He gave Deutsche Bahn until Monday to present a viable new deal. Meanwhile, he accused Deutsche Bahn CEO Hartmut Mehdorn of showing an unwillingness to compromise, alleging that the company has refused to engage in serious negotiations.
For his part, Bahn board member Rausch said the company was "sitting at the negotiating table and waiting," while adding that he had the impression that GDL was trying to force the company to capitulate. "They won't succeed," he said, before going on to describe the strike as "counterproductive" and claiming that Deutsche Bahn could withstand the strike pressure for a long time.
GDL and Deutsche Bahn have been locked in a wage dispute since spring. GDL is demanding its own wage deal independent of an agreement reached with other railway workers in July that gave them a 4.5 percent pay raise. GDL's 34,000 drivers are demanding a 31 percent increase as well as improved working hours.
According to Reuters, economists warn that disruptions of freight routes could cost the economy up to €50 million ($73.3 million) per day, rising to €500 million if the strikes last longer than a week.
However, one of the German government's top advisors on economic issues, Bert Rürup, said it was unlikely the strikes would put any kind of serious dent in the country's recent economic turnaround. "Of course it will have a certain negative impact on the economy," he said, before adding that he saw no immediate threat to the upswing.
Massive Strikes also Hit France
France is also continuing to suffer transport chaos caused by strikes. Only 90 of the country's 700 high-speed trains were operating on Thursday, according to the national rail service. In Paris, roughly a fifth of the subways were running while the streets were clogged with traffic jams up to 200 kilometers long.
Seven of France's eight railway workers unions have called for open-ended strikes to protest President Nicholas Sarkozy's proposed reform to the pension system. The reforms are supported by roughly 70 percent of the population, and would mark an end to railway workers' privileged status in the pension system. As matters now stand, France's train drivers can retire at 50, railway bureaucrats at 55 -- this against a national average retirement age of 61. Sarkozy wants railway employees to only be entitled to full pension benefits after 40 years of service. He defends the reform as socially just and economically necessary.
Sarkozy knows that a failure with this reform, his first major one after six months in office, would bode badly for future ones. He has told party colleagues, "I'll hold this one out to the end."
On Wednesday, France's Labour Minister Xavier Bertrand met for individual talks with several union heads as Sarkozy spoke with state-owned companies that have been affected by the strikes. The Élysée Palace reports that Sarkozy has asked Bertrand to solicit specific suggestions from union heads as to how negotiations should proceed.
"The president of the Republic has always believed that there is more to be gained for all parties in negotiation than in conflict," said presidential spokesman David Martinon on Thursday, adding that for the good of commuters and passengers, the strikes should see a swift conclusion.
The strike is said to be costing €150 million ($220 million) a day in greater Paris alone.