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Home Travel German train strikes meet resignation, dismay in Cologne – DW – 01/10/2024

German train strikes meet resignation, dismay in Cologne – DW – 01/10/2024

by Staff

The young woman with a heavy-looking backpack standing between platform 6 and 7 is clearly weighing her options. Standing right in front of the screen listing the next departures from Cologne Central Station, she glances down at her phone and back up to the screen again. Finally, she has made her decision — and has a few minutes to speak with DW.

Alice, 25, with the big backpack, lives in Paris and is trying to visit a friend in Berlin. Her connection was canceled after GDL, the German train drivers union, called on its members to strike.

“I’ve been planning this trip for months and now I have to reorganize everything,” she says.

She doesn’t know what the strike is about.

“If I were at home, I might support it, but not as a traveler,” Alice says.

Then a regional express train arrives, which she hopes will enable her to catch another train to the capital. “I’ve got 10 minutes to change trains and I’m afraid it won’t work,” she says.

Striking for a 35-hour week

Deutsche Bahn, the German state-owned railway company, has announced that between Wednesday and Friday, perhaps just 20% of long-distance trains will run. GDL is calling for better pay and also a reduction of weekly work hours from 38 to 35. DB, by far Germany’s largest train operator, is so far only offering the option of reduced hours for reduced pay.

German commuters face chaos as a three-day rail strike begins

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Late last year, GDL had already staged two warning strikes. DB failed in last-ditch attempts to have the current strike prevented by court order. As a result, hardly any trains were leaving Cologne Central Station, normally one of Germany’s busiest rail hubs, on Wednesday.

On platform 2, a middle-aged man who asks to be identified only by his surname, Blum, is not impressed by the strike.

“If we keep getting lazier in this country, how can there be progress?,” Blum asks. “I live in England, there you can see where it is all headed. The country has run itself into the ground because everyone is just making demands.”

Reduced timetable instead of hustle and bustle: Only one in five trains was expected to run during the strikeImage: David Ehl/DW

Blum has just arrived in Cologne on the Eurostar and will continue on a privately operated regional train. At least in theory. The departure time shown on the board has already passed, but the train is not there.

DB should at least manage to update this kind of information,” says Blum, bemoaning a lack of digitization. “No wonder there’s no money for a 35-hour week.”

DB needs to attract new drivers, striker warns

Just outside the station are dozens of men and women wearing green jackets who would disagree with Blum. In a green pavilion, GDL has set up its picket line headquarters, complete with a heater to fend off the January cold. Strikers can sign in on folding tables.

Among the strikers’ ranks is Raymond Geisler, who has been working for DB in the Cologne area since completing his training in 2015. New train drivers are urgently needed, he told DW.

“We can’t just keep pushing existing staff to the maximum, we need intelligent solutions to fill this gap in the long term,” Geisler says. “That only works if we make these jobs attractive.”

Striking train driver Raymond Geisler believes there is no other way to get DB to listenImage: David Ehl/DW

None of DB’s ideas have worked so far, according to Geisler. That’s why he supports the gradual move to a 35-hour week.

He is sorry the strikes are affecting passengers, though. Especially since German farmers protesting cuts to diesel subsidies have also caused travel chaos this week, shutting down road traffic with tractor convoys.

“We don’t want to harm customers, that’s not our aim,” Geisler says. “But we have no other way of emphasizing our demands.”

Resignation, head-shaking — and perhaps a more comfortable trip

Back inside the station, it seems most people have resigned themselves to the situation. There is hardly any activity at the information desk. DB set up a free hotline in advance and announced a goodwill policy for returning tickets that had already been purchased. The display boards only show trains that are actually running.

A woman who gives only her surname, Reschke, and whose white hair peeks out from under her warm fleece hat, doesn’t seem too put out when she talks to DW: “The S-Bahn runs once an hour, so I basically have no disadvantages from the strike today.”

Mrs. Reschke was still able to make her way despite the strikeImage: David Ehl/DW

Although Reschke doesn’t want to deny the GDL the right to strike, she is somewhat skeptical.

“The main thing they’re after, the reduction in working hours, it would only work if there are enough people to do it,” she says. “But there’s a lack of staff! That doesn’t make sense!”

On a nearby platform, a man in his mid-fifties says he is generally in favor of GDL’s demand for a four-day week, but that calling for it shouldn’t stop people from traveling by train who really need to. His train to Duesseldorf is running, however. And thanks to the strike, he is expecting a comfortable trip.

“There’s hardly anybody here,” he says. “There’ll be a lot of space on the train. That’s nice.”

This text was originally written in German.

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